Successful adult bone marrow stem cell surgeries and therapies have been around for 40 years, but researchers are presently investigating possible stem cell solutions and cures for some of the most life-threatening diseases of all, including cancer, heart disease, Lou Gehrig’s disease and blood disorders.
Now, some researchers also believe that supplementing surgery with stem cell treatments can help heal. Sometimes called somatic stem cells, adult stem cells are promising and far less controversial than embryonic stem cells. The human body has many such stem cells that might be used in applications ranging from pain relief to regeneration of cartilage.
It sounds miraculous, but only time will tell. ''Stem cells are talented," says surgeon C. Thomas Vangsness, Jr., MD, professor of surgery and chief of sports medicine at Keck Medicine of the University of Southern California. "However, their promise is up in the air."
Stem Cell Therapy 101
Here's what to know about stem cells: "Your body has 70 to 100 trillion cells,'' says Vangsness. “About one in a million cells are specialized stem cells, maybe one in 100,000 if you are younger."
The two main types of stem cells are adult stem cells, which come from living tissue (either the patient’s or a donor’s) and embryonic, the more controversial type obtained from human embryos.
Adult stem cells can divide to produce more stem cells, or differentiate and produce significantly specialized types of cells (e.g., cartilage, blood or bone). Interestingly, the brain was once thought to lack stem cells, but they were discovered in the 1990s and may bode well for Alzheimer’s research.
Stem cell therapies are used to help treat many other conditions:
- Parkinson's disease
- Blood diseases
- Alzheimer's disease
- Spinal cord injuries
- Stroke and heart disease
Stem Cells for Orthopedic Troubles
In one recent study, Vangsness evaluated 55 patients, ages 18 to 60, who had surgery to remove part of their torn medial meniscus in the knee joint (the meniscus is a C-shaped piece of cartilage). Most study participants also had ''wear-and-tear'' osteoarthritis. Seven to 10 days after the surgery, he assigned them, randomly, to get one of three treatments:
- Injection of low-dose stem cells (50 million cells);
- Injection of high-dose stem cells (150 million cells); or
- Injection of sodium hyaluronate, often used to lubricate the knee joint and reduce pain.
Doctors extracted the stem cells from the bone marrow of donors and performed imaging studies to see how the treatments affected the knee. Patients reported on their pain levels as well.
"Those who got the other [sodium] injections did not improve, but those who got stem cells had a decrease in pain," Vangsness says. “The cartilage also regenerated in some patients; some even resumed jogging.” No patients suffered any adverse reactions, either.
As reported in The Journal of Bone & Joint Surgery, the welcome improvements in pain relief and cartilage were depleted two years later, however. “That suggests periodic stem cell injections may be needed,” Vangsness says.
While it's easy to get excited about stem cell research, researchers in the field urge caution.
- Be aware that currently the only stem-cell based products approved for use in the U.S. by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) are blood-forming stem cells from cord blood, and this admittance only applies under certain conditions. Other therapeutic uses of stem cells are presently investigational.
- Stem cell schemes (i.e., criminal activity related to manufacturing, selling and using stem cells without FDA sanction or approval) have been investigated by the FDA, and there is concern that scammers will offer false hope to people with incurable diseases, in exchange for financial gain.
- Join a clinical trial if you can. Legitimate clinical trials on stem cells are listed on the Federal website at ClinicalTrials.gov.
If you have loved ones with a chronic condition, such as diabetes or osteoarthritis, ask their doctor to keep you posted on upcoming clinical trials involving stem cells. Before signing up, perform thorough research and fully discuss any potential risks and benefits.