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Martha Murray

For finally figuring out how to fix a torn ACL.

Martha Murray
A stitch in time: Surgeons sew Murray’s scaffold on to the two ends of torn ligament, holding them together long enough for tissue to grow. [Illustration: Gianpaolo Tucci]

The problem

Martha Murray was at a party in grad school when she first learned about the horrors of ACL reconstruction. “A guy came in on crutches and said he tore his ACL,” she says. “I said, ‘Are you going to fix it?’ He said, ‘You can’t fix it. You have to take it out and replace it with a tendon graft, and then do six months of rehab.’ I thought, Well, that seems kind of ridiculous.” At the time, Murray was an engineering student, but she soon shifted into medicine, unable to get ACL reconstruction out of her mind.

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The epiphany

The ACL, unlike other parts of the body, is indeed unable to heal itself. After 10 years of research, Murray discovered why: the same fluid that keeps the knee lubricated also prevents it from forming blood clots, and therefore bridges between bits of torn tissue. If she could create a different kind of bridge for the knee, she realized, she could make a torn ACL fixable after all.

The execution

Murray and her team used the same proteins found in the ACL to manufacture a spongelike scaffold that surgeons would be able to sew onto the two ends of the torn ligament, giving a clot something to cling to and holding the pieces of ligament together long enough for tissue to grow back together. Because the new method wouldn’t require a graft, the surgery would be less invasive and the recovery time considerably shorter.

The result

Early experiments with the scaffold have been encouraging, and Murray and her team recently received approval from the FDA to begin their first human trial. Once the scaffold hits the medical-device market, the impact could be huge. Hundreds of thousands of athletes suffer torn ACLs every year, and Murray’s work could save them untold hours in physical therapy and, collectively, hundreds of millions on medical bills.


Bonus Round

Where or how do you seek out creative inspiration?

The human body is just amazing. Think about development, where two cells divide a gazillion times and create an organism that has equal sized legs, arms that looks the same, as well as things as diverse as the eyes, skin and gut. How amazing is it that so often it goes basically perfectly? What other machine can heal itself after an injury or custom-design an infection fighting army hundreds (thousands?) of times? Really, biology is amazing. My inspiration comes from seeing something in the human body that isn’t working quite right—it makes me wonder how we can we use the things that often work so well to create a solution for a medical problem.

What’s the first thing you do when you wake up in the morning?

Hug the child who is standing next to my bed saying \”Mom. Mom. Mom. Mom.\” If no child is there I reach for my phone and delete all junk emails that came in overnight and try to get in a quick game or two of Candy Crush before getting the kids up. It’s great if I can get something accomplished before getting out of bed.

What is one thing about your job that you think would surprise people?

Surgery is truly a team effort.

What are some things you do to refresh your mind when you’re in a rut?

If one project is getting stalled for some reason, I switch gears to another project or two for a while until the problem with the first one works itself out. Sometimes if I am stuck, and leave a problem to sit for a bit, the answer shows up at a traffic light or when I am reading something totally unrelated. It’s like when you are trying to remember someone’s name and once you stop trying, it pops into your brain. It’s the best part of having a bunch of things going on at the same time.

Who outside of your field inspires you the most and why?

Ellie Arroway in the movie Contact. Jodie Foster did a fantastic job of capturing the joys and challenges of someone passionate about a field of study that might not be considered mainstream and might run into a roadblock or two as a result. When I get beaten down or stymied somehow and feel I just can’t possibly go on, I come home anzd watch that movie. I’ve seen it over 100 times.

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About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.

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