NBC News 5—West Palm Beach, Fla.—November 11, 2010
Vern Tejas spends most of his life on top of the world. His resume includes conquering Mount Mckinley 40 times, Mount Kilimanjaro 20 times and Mount Everest nine times.
But, a broken ankle from 30 years ago created his biggest barrier yet. The cartilage in between his subtalar joint right below the ankle, was gone.
Doctors tried a new approach. Implant a fixator for three months that pulls apart the joint. Then, inject stem cells in the new four-millimeter space where cartilage will regenerate.
Doctor S. Robert Rozbruch of Hospital for Special Surgery in New York has done 100 of these procedures on ankle joints. 90 percent of patients are relieved of pain and don't need fusions.
A climbing king who wasn't going to let pain prevent him from his next adventure.
This is the first time ever the procedure was done in the joint below the ankle. Vern's next trip is an expedition across the south pole this month.
Doctor Rozbruch says the cartilage continues to regenerate years after the procedure.
If it doesn't work, patients can still have a fusion.
VERN TEJAS: Since 1992, Vern Tejas has been serving as a guide for Alpine Ascents International and building an unparalleled climbing resume. His accomplishment of being the first person to ever climb the Denali Mountain alone stands as one of the most inspiring climbing feats in history. His other achievements include the first solo climb of Mt. Vinson in Antarctica, the thirteenth scaling of Mt. Everest, and a successful climb of Mt. Vaughn in Antarctica. He has bicycled the Americas' highest peak of Aconcagua and paraglided from Europe's highest point of Mt. Elbrus. (SOURCE: Mountainzone.com).
TREATMENT: In Tejas' case, stem cells were injected directly into the fixated joint below his ankle to stimulate the growth of much-needed cartilage. His doctor S. Robert Rozbruch was unable to apply the typical treatment of simply stiffening the joint and minimize movement because it would prevent him from ever retaining enough foot motion to climb. The stem cell procedure is called "Ankle Distraction," wherein Rozbruch reported to have "[prepared] that joint by drilling some small holes into the bone, which helped allow blood to come to the surface. We injected a biosynthetic material into the joint, which basically was a composite of his stem cells – we used stem cells from his pelvis and injected them into the subtalar joint – and then we applied this little fixator that helped pull apart the joint. And what that did was helped unload the joint and allow cartilage to regenerate. It’s got all of the right stuff; it’s unloading it, it has stem cells, it has the channels of blood coming up, as well as a carrying agent that holds the stem cells in place. So that was the plan."