Looking to revolutionize canine orthopedics

Looking to revolutionize canine orthopedics

UM veterinarian eyes bioengineering for next generation of joint replacements
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Apr 01, 2011

COLUMBIA, MO. — While Dr. James Cook decided early on in life to tackle joint replacements, it was a circuitous route—a path that involved professional water skiing, substitute teaching and a man named Robert Gordon—that led him to the brink of a major discovery.

After years of research, Cook and his team have engineered functional biologic joints. Those joints have been implanted successfully in research rabbits and dogs and a small number of clinical canine patients. Some day, Cook and his team hope the same technology can be used for humans.

"So far the outcomes have been very good, and we feel that the technology is ready for clinical trials," Cook says. "We hope to do more canine patients that really need this technology and eventually get it into humans."

While Cook says the technology appears ready, safe and effective, they have just started with the FDA-approval process. A process that could take seven to 10 years, he says.

"If we are successful, it would absolutely revolutionize orthopedics and delivery of care for patients with arthritis," he says. "Instead of metal and plastic joints that wear out, cannot sustain high-level athletic function and can have major complications, the biologic joints would be replacing arthritic joints with 'new, young' completely functional cartilage and bone."

Joints and how they work have captivated Cook since he watched his grandfather—Robert Gordon—use crutches, canes and eventually a wheelchair.

Cook calls his grandfather an "amazing man."

"He was a self-made businessman who, with a high school education, went from sweeping the shop floors to being the president of a large pneumatic tool company," Cook says. "He helped raise me as my father was not in the picture.

"He had seven knee replacement surgeries in his life, so I grew up seeing him go through surgeries and helping him rehab by going on bicycle rides where we would talk about life—he would teach me all kinds of things," Cook says. "So, from as early as I can remember, I wanted to help him by curing arthritis and/or finding better ways to treat knee problems than metal and plastic joints."

Growing up in Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Florida, Cook says he had every animal imaginable—dogs, cats, horses, lizards, alligators and sheep. "I never thought about being a veterinarian until after college," he says. "I always had the thought about orthopedics, but always thought it would be via the doctor route."

Veterinary school remained on the back burner for awhile as Cook embraced his first career—water skiing.

"I started water skiing when I was 4 years old, thanks to my grandpa and uncles, and had some talent for it," he says.

By the time he was 16 years old, Cook reached the highest level of amateur status and went to Florida State University to be on the water-skiing team. At that point, coming from a family of teachers, he studied education and planned to pursue a water-skiing career.

After two years of college skiing, Cook turned pro. He finished his degree in mathematics education and then skied professionally while working as a carpenter for four years.

Life had other plans, and after two severe injuries, Cook moved to St. Louis where his sister Julie lived.

"I was substitute teaching, waiting tables and doing odd jobs as a carpenter when I got a full-time job as an animal control officer," he says.

It was there that he met veterinarian Dan Knox.

"He showed me what a neat profession veterinary medicine is and got me hooked up with a St. Louis practice where I worked as a volunteer kennel boy and assistant," Cook says.

Veterinarians at the practice told him about the specialties in veterinary medicine, including orthopedics.