ACLs, tricorders and the microwave: A surgeon’s passions

This post is first in a series of profiles of researchers and innovators at Boston Children’s Hospital.

Martha Murray, Braden Fleming and their children in San Francisco.
Martha Murray, Braden Fleming and their children in San Francisco.

“I’d like to meet the innovator who made the tricorder that Bones used on Star Trek,” says orthopedic surgeon Martha Murray, MD. “A push of the button and things healed, no muss, no fuss. I’d like to know how he or she made that work because I could really use one.”

Murray has been on a 30-year quest to devise a better way to treat anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) tears. She recently crossed a major milestone: The Food and Drug Administration approved a first-in-human safety trial of a bio-enhanced ACL repair that encourages the ligament to heal itself. Murray expects the first patients to enroll in the 20-patient trial by early 2015. We had a few questions for her.

What’s the potential impact of your ACL repair technique?

Bio-enhanced ACL repair is a less invasive alternative to conventional ACL reconstruction. It uses a bio-engineered scaffold as a bridge between the ends of the torn ACL to stimulate healing. The procedure eliminates the graft harvest required to complete a conventional ACL reconstruction.

Translational studies in animals suggest that the technique preserves the proprioceptive nerve fibers in the ACL and that the complex anatomy of the insertion sites and fan shape of the ligament will more closely restore the normal dynamic biomechanics of the knee. This could decrease the premature osteoarthritis often seen in the knees of patients after an ACL tear.

What sparked your initial idea?

The innovation was sparked almost 30 years ago at Stanford University. I was a graduate student in engineering and found myself completely intrigued when a friend who had recently torn his ACL explained the extent of the surgical reconstruction. I was fascinated by the ligament’s inability to heal. I switched from engineering to medicine and embarked on a three-decade process to improve the procedure.

If you were CEO for one day, what would you do?

I would create a “Dream Fund.” I would take 1 percent of clinical income into the hospital and set up a fund for innovative research projects that have a defined path toward changing clinical care, even if that path might require years and millions of dollars to get to the clinic. I think true innovation that is paradigm-shifting and can really change clinical care of our patients requires this type of effort, patience and vision.

Murray and her daughter Katie geared up for a 3-D movie.
Murray and her daughter Katie geared up for a 3-D movie.

What innovation could you not live without?

The microwave. I think my family would starve if I needed more than 10 minutes to get dinner on the table.

How do you find inspiration?

My parents. Every day they teach by example about the joy of devoting time and effort to helping others.

If you weren’t innovating at Boston Children’s what would your dream job be?

Right now, my dream job would be a full-time wife and mom. Being an innovator and clinician has meant a lot of time away from home, and while my family is very supportive of what I’m doing, I miss being with them for the big and little events that make up their lives. Our family is just so great to be around these days—to be with them more would be the best job I could imagine.

Murray talks more about her ACL repair innovation in this radio interview.