Genetics saves footballer's damaged knee

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The Independent Online
A young footballer whose career is threatened by a knee injury, is to become the first person in Britain to undergo surgery to repair the joint using some of his own cartilage, the material which lines the joint and ensures its smooth functioning, which has been "grown" in a test-tube using genetic engineering techniques.

Jamie Shore, 18, a former England under-16 star and now with Norwich City, took out a pounds 10,000 loan to part-fund the pioneering operation which he hopes will save his career.

Doctors say that the new technique offers hope to scores of professional and non-professional sportsmen and women whose playing days are halted by similar injuries, and to people suffering from painful arthritic joints.

Some of the damaged cartilage in Mr Shore's knee was removed in January and flown to America where it was cultured in a special medium to grow from an original sample size of about 10,000 cells to around 10-16 million cells.

The new cells will be implanted into the knee to recreate the joint's lining during the operation on 29 March at the NHS Centre for Sports Injury Surgery at Crewe in Cheshire.

Dai Rees, director of the Centre and a consultant orthopaedic surgeon at the Mid-Cheshire Hospitals NHS Trust, who will carry out the operation, yesterday likened it to a "pothole" repair.

"Like the damaged road surface, the articular [cartilage] lining will not spontaneously heal since the cells do not naturally replicate. Until now, all that could be achieved was to drill through the bone underlying the ... cartilage defect to stimulate scar tissue to fill it. This is inferior to the normal lining, [it] would be like filling the road with rubble as opposed to new tarmac." Mr Rees said some new cells would initially be "sprayed" around the knee defect, and then the bulk of cells implanted in a two-and-a-half-hour operation. If successful, Mr Shore should be back playing football within a year.

Mr Rees said people with arthritis and other joint problems could benefit from the technique, known as autologous chondrocyte culture.

"The problems encountered by arthritis sufferers are essentially the same as those Jamie has. I am not saying that is is going to eradicate the need for hip replacements, but it may help us to tackle arthritis in people under 50, as has happened in Sweden."

Mr Shore suffered extensive damage to his knee cartilage when he was tackled while playing for Norwich City youth squad 15 months ago. He was told that he would never play professional football again.

However, he heard about the operation and has pursued it ever since. "I wasn't going to be told that I couldn't play again," he said. "I wanted a second opinion. I feel I have been thrown a lifeline and I have just got to pull myself to the top."