Scientists tackle sport's Achilles' heel

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IT IS named after a demigod and plays havoc with the careers of sporting heroes. Now ordinary mortals have created in the laboratory what nature took millions of years to produce: an Achilles' tendon.

A team of Scottish researchers used stem cells to create the artificial tendon, which they believe will offer new hope of recovery to injured sportsmen and women.

Many athletes, including Olympic gold medallist Kelly Holmes (pictured), have suffered a ruptured Achilles' tendon, and the team at Dundee University believe the manmade version could be transplanted.

Dr Robert Keatch, head of the university's Division of Mechanical Engineering, revealed he used a specially constructed machine and human stem cells to recreate the thickest and strongest tendon in the human body.

Under normal laboratory conditions, the human stem cells would have developed into ordinary muscle.

But by applying pressure, force and movement to them as they grew, Keatch mimicked how tendons naturally grow in humans, and the stem cells responded by growing into the right type of tissue.

The Achilles' tendon, which is typically about 15cm long, runs from the bone of the heel up to the calf muscle.

It takes the weight of the body during walking and exercise.

Keatch, whose work was funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council to avoid animal testing, said the next step was to work out how to attach the tendons to bone and muscle in the human body.

He said: "If you have an Achilles rupture, it can take months in a plaster for it to heal. My own father did it playing squash.

"We took normal stem cells that form muscle-type material. We grew them in an environment similar to the human body, because when they are growing in babies, force is applied to them and that's how they grow. So we pulled it and relaxed it over time, and the cell structure changes when you apply force.

"We applied mechanical stimulus and electrical stimulus together."

Keatch is now studying how much pressure is needed to grow a tendon strong enough to be used in humans. "What we want is to one day grow cells from patients and implant them back into them," he said. "That way they would not reject them because it's their own cells."

A ruptured Achilles' tendon is known as a 'sniper's shot', because when it happens the sufferer drops to the ground suddenly.

Holmes suffered from a ruptured Achilles' tendon in 1997 during the heats for the World Championships in Athens. Despite the injury, she dragged herself across the line.

Other sufferers of the condition include Scottish downhill skier Finlay Mickel, who sustained the damage during a training accident, Liverpool defender Fabio Aurelio, England rugby player Lewis Moody and Aston Villa defender Curtis Davies.

The experimental development has been welcomed by Dr Brian Walker, head of sports medicine at the Scottish Institute of Sport, which trains elite athletes.

He said it might also be helpful in treating patients with two types of chronic degeneration of the Achilles' tendon: Achilles' Tendonitis and Achilles' Tendonosis, in which the tendon is painful and damaged.