Injury & Recovery

While on course to defend her downhill gold medal, Lindsey Vonn suffered a devastating knee injury when she tore her ACL. Using the field of regenerative engineering, Cato Laurencin has engineered the L-C ligament, a device that could one day reduce recovery time and get athletes like Vonn back on the slopes faster. "Science and Engineering of the 2014 Olympic Winter Games” is produced in partnership with the National Science Foundation.

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LIAM McHUGH, reporting: She is known around the world as the speed queen. Clocked at speeds over 70 miles per hour, Lindsey Vonn became the first American woman to win downhill gold -

LINDSEY VONN (Alpine Skiing Gold Medalist): (Screams) Yes!

McHUGH: - at the 2010 Olympic Winter Games in Vancouver.

VONN: Yeah! Yes!

McHUGH: But while on course to defend her title at the 2014 Olympic Winter Games, Vonn crashed and severely injured her right knee at the 2013 Alpine World Championships in Austria.

VONN: The second I was tumbling down the mountain I was like, “Oh man, I hope I’m ready for Sochi."

McHUGH: Vonn fractured her tibial plateau, the top surface of her shin bone. She also tore two key ligaments in her knee - the MCL, or medial collateral ligament, and ACL, the anterior cruciate ligament. Off of snow for seven months following ACL reconstruction surgery, Vonn is looking to Sochi as the ultimate goal in her recovery process.

VONN: Once I found out that, you know, my knee was gone, that was my only thought and my only priority. Next year and this summer, for that matter, my focus is only on the Olympics.

McHUGH: While Vonn's accident is devastating, an ACL injury is one the most common in skiing.

CATO LAURENCIN (University of Connecticut): The risk of ACL injury and for athletes and non-athletes is actually very, very high and some upwards of one 1 in 7, 1 in 8 individuals can have an ACL tear in skiing.

McHUGH: Cato Laurencin is a professor of orthopedic surgery and a biomedical engineer at the University of Connecticut Health Center. He specializes in knee and shoulder reconstruction.

LAURENCIN: The anterior cruciate ligament is anterior, meaning it's in front. It's cruciate, meaning it's in the form of a cross with another ligament. And it's a ligament, and the ligament connects bone to bone.

McHUGH: The ACL connects the femur, or thigh bone, to the tibia, or shin bone and provides stability to the knee. Because the ACL can't heal on its own, it must be surgically reconstructed with biological tissue from the patient's own body or from a cadaver. Full rehabilitation can be six months to a year or more.

LAURENCIN: Athletes who are high performance want to come back as quickly as possible. 

McHUGH: With funding from the National Science Foundation, Laurencin is developing an alternative solution that could reduce recovery time. It uses a biodegradable scaffold called the L-C Ligament that allows patients to regenerate a new ACL. The L-C Ligament was made using tissue engineering, a field of research that aims to repair and regenerate biological tissues such as ligaments, tendons, and bone using synthetic and natural materials.

LAURENCIN: By understanding how cells interact with materials, we can create three-dimensional matrices that when planted implanted into humans, can regenerate the ACL. The goal is not just to be able to create a material that is like the ACL, the goal is to create a material that becomes the ACL.

McHUGH: Laurencin calls this field of work regenerative engineering, the next level of tissue engineering combining advanced materials science, stem cell science, and developmental biology to regenerate muscles, ligaments, and tendons. One of his team's latest projects involves the shoulder rotator cuff.

LAURENCIN: We've now made pretty much every type of tissue in the extremity and then how do we sort of bring these interfaces together to create real complex tissues. And this answer is, as we've said in regenerative engineering, the answer is a complex answer. There's not going to be just the materials part, but also the use of stem cells and understanding developmental cues that will make things happen.

McHUGH: Students in his lab are also regenerating other parts of the body such as bone and cartilage degraded by osteoarthritis.

DEBORAH DORCEMUS (University of Connecticut): I’m working with a gradient scaffold that's used to repair bone and cartilage. When you have osteoarthritis, both the bone and the cartilage degrade and we're trying to figure out a way to replace it as a total.

McHUGH: During a training run in November, Vonn experienced a setback on her road to the 2014 Olympics, partially tearing her reconstructed ACL. While human trials of Laurencin's L-C ligament have just begun, he hopes it will one day help athletes like Vonn get back on the slopes faster.