COLUMBIA, Mo. -- Millions of people of all ages need new knees or other joints, but the metal and plastic joints aren't a good option for younger or more active people. What if you could use real human tissue instead? A young man from Lake Ozark, Missouri, is the first to get the Mizzou Biojoint.
Jonathan Williams hit the quarterback in a high school football game and broke his own leg. Williams didn't know then that his knee was also badly damaged. Cartilage was dying. Knee pain was never-ending in the two and a half years since.
"I did take a lot of painkillers which affected my grades. It made it harder for me to study," he said.
"Thinking about what kind of depression he was going through, very hard for a mom to watch that," said his mother, Louise Williams.
Now 18, Williams is too young and wanting to be too active for an artificial knee. It would break down over time and repeatedly need replacing. Many others are in the same boat. But unlike them, Williams was presented with an option, a natural replacement.
"I get to be part of something that could potentially help a lot of people," he said.
"It's a transplant. So we're transplanting bone and articular cartilage from someone who unfortunately died," said Dr. James Stannard with the Missouri Orthopaedic Institute.
Williams became the first person to receive the Mizzou Biojoint. Donor grafts for the knee aren't new, but have had limitations. Most donated tissue went bad before it could be transplanted. Mizzou researchers have invented a preservation method with what they call a "secret sauce". Tissue can last up to two months before being transplanted which means more grafts should be available for patients.
"The most important thing is the grafts are better quality grafts. There are more cells there and so we're more confident we'll have the success we want," said Dr. James Cook of the Mizzou Biojoint Center.
Dr. Cook is a veterinarian, so the first patients weren't human.
"We were able to develop it more quickly and at the same time, help our four-legged friends as well, too," he said.
Williams received donor cartilage and bone to fit the space where damaged tissue was removed. The only thing artificial? A couple of screws to hold the graft in place.
"It's the only way to restore what God gave us to start with back. The biggest limit right now is donors," said Dr. Stannard.
MU researchers are working on growing tissue in the lab so one day, the supply could be greater.
It's been three months since Williams' surgery.
"I feel like I can move my knee how I want to and how it's supposed to move. I really don't have to worry about it anymore," he said.
The pain is greatly diminished. He's walking well and hopes to jog this summer.
The doctors say the biojoint will never totally replace metal and plastic joints, but they hope it will allow younger, active patients to have 15 to 20 years of high level activity.