Clinical Review

Allografts for Ligament Reconstruction: Where Are We Now?

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The use of musculoskeletal allografts by orthopedic surgeons continues to rise. The process of procuring and sterilizing allografts is evolving with much consideration to limiting the spread of infectious diseases and preserving tissue integrity. Research involving the application of allografts, particularly for ligament repair, is quite active, necessitating an update for the practicing orthopedist. Avoiding donor site morbidities is one of the most commonly cited advantages of allografts over autografts. There is controversy amongst studies for allografts in terms of their biological incorporation and clinical outcomes compared to autografts. This article focuses on reviewing the most current literature and usage of allograft tissue for ligamentous reconstruction amongst orthopedic surgeons today. It includes an in-depth analysis of the current processing, handling, and safety standards employed today, in addition to the advantages and disadvantages of allograft use.



Musculoskeletal allografts are becoming increasingly accepted as a viable alternative to autografts in a variety of orthopedic procedures. A 2006 American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine (AOSSM) survey indicated that 86% of the participating 365 orthopedic surgeons use allografts in their practice.1 Although the overwhelming majority of orthopedic surgeons use allografts, they share common concerns, including safety, tissue integrity, and biologic incorporation. It is essential for the orthopedic surgeon to understand the current standards of tissue banking, risks and benefits related to the use of allografts, and common indications for safe use in clinical practice. This article reviews the current status of musculoskeletal allografts, including tissue procurement and processing, infections, complications, and specific uses tailored to ligament reconstruction.

Donor Bank, Processing, Sterilization, and Regulation

In the United States, the American Association of Tissue Banks (AATB) is responsible for establishing the standards for more than 100 accredited tissue banks. These tissue banks recover tissue from approximately 30,000 donors annually and account for an estimated 90% of the available musculoskeletal allografts used in the United States. While not all tissue banks are accredited by the AATB, all are required to register with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which allows for unannounced inspections of any facility. Facilities are required to abide by the FDA-implemented Current Good Tissue Practices (CGTP), which encompasses regulations on all donor tissue collected after May 2005 to help prevent the transmission of communicable diseases. The FDA released an updated draft in January 2009 that emphasizes safe practices and regulations spanning from environmental control to specific equipment.2

The safety of a transplanted allograft tissue begins within the tissue bank. Donor screening and testing is the first step in reducing the risk of transmission. Screening consists of collecting medical and social history from the family and any healthcare resources to assess the eligibility of the donor. If prior blood donations or autopsy information is available, that information is scrutinized. Donor tissue undergoes nucleic acid testing (NAT), which is required by both the AATB and FDA. All donor tissue must be screened for both types of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), hepatitis B virus (HBV), hepatitis C virus (HCV), treponema pallidum, and human transmissible spongiform encephalopathies.3 NAT of donor tissue effectively reduces the risk of viral transmission. Additionally, routine preprocessing swabs for bacterial and fungal cultures are performed, although the sensitivity of these cultures ranges from 78% to 92%.4

After donor screening and testing, allograft tissues are usually obtained under aseptic conditions, though this is not FDA-required.5 Once procured, the tissue undergoes sterilization. Currently, there is no standard method ubiquitous to all tissue banks, nor does the FDA require a specific method. Rather, the FDA and AATB require tissue banks to validate their sterilization process and provide supporting data. The goal of sterilization is to inactivate viruses and eradicate bacteria while maintaining the biological and mechanical properties of the tissue. The AATB requires a Sterility Assurance Level (SAL) of 10-6, meaning there is no more than one in a million chance that a nonviral viable microbe exists on or within the tissue. Sterilization techniques may include both radiation and a variety of chemical reagents. Gamma irradiation is a commonly used method of sterilizing soft tissue allografts, although some studies indicate that it is detrimental to tissue biology.6 Newer methods of sterilization are being tested, one of which includes carbon dioxide in combination with antioxidants and irradiation. Bui and colleagues7 directly compared the biomechanical and histological properties of allograft tissue after either the standard 25 kGy gamma irradiation or supercritical carbon dioxide techniques. Although there is no histological difference, the samples treated with supercritical carbon dioxide had less biomechanical damage.7 Finally, the terminally sterilized allograft tissue is frozen to temperatures between -40°C and -80°C.5


One major concern of allografts is the risk of disease transmission. While numerous studies have investigated the incidence of bacterial infection following transplantation of allograft tissue, there are challenges associated with differentiating common postoperative infections from ones directly associated with the transmission of bacteria within the graft. There is a wide array of reported incidences of infection in the literature, from the Tomford and colleagues8 1981 study that reported a 6.9% rateto the 2001 study by Munting and colleagues,9 who reported 0% in their series. Multiple confounding variables exist, such as possible contamination during handling of an otherwise noncontaminated or properly sterilized allograft with inappropriate inclusion of all postoperative infections. In contrast, recognizing viral transmission has been somewhat easier, although reporting of these incidences has been variable in the past. In either case, there is no accredited reporting system for infections related to allografts.


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