SURGEONS in Southampton have begun pioneering knee operations that could extend sporting careers.

A procedure is being trialled at Southampton General Hospital where damaged cartilage is coated with stem cells taken from a patient's hip and surgical glue.

If successful the technique will regenerate the remaining tissue and create a 'like-for-like' replacement and prevent the development of arthritis which can occur when damage goes untreated.

Cartilage is a tough, flexible tissue that covers the surface of joints and enables bones to slide over one another while reducing friction and acting as a shock absorber.

Damage to knee tissue is common and occurs usually following twists or direct blows, such as falls playing football or rugby, and around 10,000 people in the UK suffer serious cartilage damage every year.

Gorav Datta, consultant orthopaedic surgeon at the General and the study's principal investigator, said: “The development of this technique and the study we are conducting could revolutionise the treatment of common cartilage injury by creating a like-for-like, identical cartilage replacement for the first time.

“So far, treatments developed to combat the long-term problems associated with cartilage damage have had varied outcomes, resulting in knee pain for many people in older age and shortened careers for many amateur and professional sports players.”

Currently microfracture surgery is the most common procedure used to repair cartilage injuries, which involves trimming damaged tissue and drilling holes in the bone beneath the defect via keyhole surgery to create substitute scar tissue.

But studies in the USA suggest the technique only gives a short-term benefit for around 24 months.

Mr Datta added: “At present, although the removal of damaged cartilage and microfracture surgery can provide a short-term solution, the chances, particularly for sports players, of developing arthritis in later life or requiring ongoing treatment remain high.”

The 30-minute procedure is known as ABICUS, or Autologous Bone Marrow Implantation of Cells University Hospital Southampton, and the study will compare the results of 40 patients aged 18-65, with half undergoing ABICUS and half having microfracture surgery.