As we grow old, our joints and back become more susceptible to injury. For example, arthritis and muscle/tendon injuries can arise from the loss of special cell types in the body.
Stem cells are a key component of regenerative medicine because they open the door to new clinical applications and therapies. Through a process called differentiation, stem cells have the ability to develop into many different types of cells.
Researchers are studying a variety of stem cells, including adult and embryonic stem cells. Each type of stem cell has unique qualities, with some being more versatile than others.
Adult stem cells develop from various tissues in the human body. Adult stem cells are referred to as multipotent cells meaning they can develop into multiple cell types, but NOT ALL cell types in the human body.
Embryonic stem cells are developed from pre-implantation embryos and are unique because they can develop into ALL cellular types and tissues in the body. Embryonic stem cells also self-renew inde nitely. Regenerative medicine therapies begin with the patient’s own cells that are reprogrammed in a laboratory to give them certain characteristics, and delivered back to the patient to treat a specific condition.
When stem cells are injected into an arthritic joint or injured tendon or ligament, they attach to the areas of damaged tissue to initiate the healing process.
Bone marrow was the first source of stem cells. Currently, however, fat tissue has become the preferred source of stem cells. Fatty tissue is one of the richest sources of stem cells with a higher concentration of stem cells than bone marrow.
Secondly, stem cells sourced from bone marrow age faster and are less effective for healing as a person ages. Thirdly, obtaining stem cells from fat is a simple procedure with minimal discomfort. Harvesting stem cells from within a person’s bone is much more invasive and painful.
Stem cell therapy is performed in the office. First the physician sources some fat tissue (typically from the person’s side). This is usually painless and takes only a few minutes. Because only about 4 tablespoons of fat are removed, there is no noticeable cosmetic difference.
The fat is then transferred to a sterile device that reduces the size of the fat clusters and further breaks up the fat tissue. The tissue is rinsed with sterile saline to remove blood and oil residues.
This solution is then prepared for injection to the site of the injured joint or ligament. All injections are performed using ultrasound guidance to ensure accurate delivery of the stem cell treatment to the area of injury. In some cases, a topical or injected anesthetic may be used to decrease pain related to the injection.
The stem cells then work directly at the site of injury, or on degenerative tissue to greatly accelerate the natural healing process.
While stem cells over the last 10 years stimulated a wide debate, the reality is that the therapy has become very mainstream, and is used by many professional athletes to accelerate healing so they can return to their sport.
For example, researchers at the Mayo Clinic conducted the world’s first prospective, blinded and placebo-controlled clinical study to test the benefit of using bone marrow stem cells for arthritic knee pain. It is the first time stem cells have been tested in such a rigorous fashion. The findings in The American Journal of Sports Medicine found that patients not only had a dramatic improvement in the knee that received stem cells, but also in their other knee, which also had painful arthritis but received only a saline control injection. Each of the 25 patients enrolled in the study had two bad knees, but did not know which knee received the stem cells.