New bone discovery could reduce recovery time

March 7, 2012 7:39:00 PM PST
Each year, more than seven million Americans suffer a broken bone and in the case of one San Jose police officer, that fracture marked the end of his days in uniform. There is new research that could soon make struggles like his a thing of the past.

Eric Navarro, a former San Jose police officer, gets around pretty well on crutches. Then again, he's had 22 months to practice.

"It's kind of everything that could go wrong has gone wrong. I think this was my fifth surgery and second bone graft and I'm hoping that this one takes," said Navarro.

Navarro's doctor explained the compound fracture that shattered his ankle, after he chased a suspect over a fence and landed badly.

"This [the shinbone or tibia] is a well know area to be very difficult to heal because there's not a lot of meat," said orthopedic surgeon Richard Coughlin, M.D. "In this case, we discussed amputation as a very viable option."

Navarro was forced to retire from the police force, as he underwent surgery to fuse his ankle together using bone taken from his knee and hip. Now, finally, his doctor has good news. With a special shoe insert and some physical therapy, Navarro could be walking on his own again in six months.

"The one promise I have for my kids, as soon as I can walk, we go to Disneyland," said Navarro.

However, researchers in a lab at San Francisco General are working to dramatically speed up that healing process. Instead of grafting bone from other parts of the body, they're trying to actually grow bone from cartilage that in some cases can be made from the patients' own stem cells.

"Stem cells, when they make cartilage, they want to turn into bone automatically," said Ralph Marcucio, Ph.D.

UCSF researchers are trying the technique on mice, a technique they discovered by accident, during a failed attempt to find a cure for arthritis.

"We realized that we were onto something and we were really excited about that," said Marcucio.

Within a few years, surgeons could be in a cadaver lab, learning to practice it on humans. Instead of two years, the recovery time from a serious fracture could be six months, which would have made all the difference for Navarro.

"He may not have even lost his position with the police force," said Theodore Miclau, M.D.

But Navarro is not thinking about what-ifs.

"I'm just looking forward to walking. Getting on two feet and walking," said Navarro.

And he's looking forward to packing his bags for Disneyland.

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