Stem Cell Therapy: Buyer Beware

It seems like stem cells have become the new buzz word for just about every medical condition from multiple sclerosis to asthma to cancer. Despite the fact that many of these health concerns have either no relation to stem cells or no chance of being successfully treated with stem cells, there are some unscrupulous physicians who continue peddling their use as a cure-all.

Despite all this, stem cell therapy does have a place in legitimate medical treatments, particularly when it comes to arthritis. As stem cell treatment for arthritis continues showing great promise, further uses for stem cell therapy are being researched heavily, with many more advances expected on the horizon.

What Are Stem Cells?

So what are stem cells, exactly? Every day, cells throughout the body age, die and then are replaced by new cells. This is how the body repairs itself, constantly replenishing old or worn cells with new. Mesenchymal stem (MSCs) cells are adult stem cells that can be isolated from other tissues. These cells are unique as they have the ability to differentiate to form muscle, tendons, bone, cartilage and skin. MSCs play a critical role in this process because they serve as the body’s raw building materials when it comes to regenerating specialized cells, such as bone, muscle or blood cells. This natural ability is what makes stem cells particularly beneficial for treatment in arthritic joints.

Stem Cells and Arthritis

Just like the other cells in the body, cartilage cells die off and regenerate every day, replacing wear and tear with healthy new cells. However, in an arthritic joint, the cell regrowth process can’t quite keep up, leading to the degeneration of the cartilage itself. Without the help of healthy cartilage, joint movement causes friction, which in turn leads to pain and inflammation.

In an arthritic joint like the knee, there’s a scarcity of stem cells, as well as an insufficient supply of the cells that produce stem cells. This means that even though cartilage cells are dying off and wearing out, they’re not being replaced, leading to a worsening of arthritis symptoms over time.

If orthopedic surgeons could somehow increase the numbers of mesenchymal stem cells in an arthritic joint, damaged cartilage could then be healed, regrown and replaced. This is the concept behind stem cell therapy: the injection of stem cells directly into the arthritic joint to encourage cellular repair and regeneration.

Can Stem Cells Improve Arthritis Symptoms?

In order for stem cell treatment to be effective, a high concentration of stem cells must first be collected from a donor area in the patient’s body. Traditionally, the most common source of stem cells has been from bone marrow, although the more recent approach involves taking stem cells from fatty tissue as well.

The stem cells are then combined with platelet rich plasma (PRP), blood cells that have a high concentration of healing and growth factors. The combination of PRP and stem cells produces a healing response in arthritic knees, and fresh, new articular cartilage growth replaces areas of wear through the help of a simple injection.

Stem cell therapy has become a positive non-surgical treatment option for arthritis, whether mild, moderate or moderately severe, and most commonly in the knee, hip and shoulder. In our office, we’ve seen a very nice response in the vast majority of patients—well over 80-85%—who report a significant decrease in pain and increase in function after stem cell therapy. These numbers have placed stem cell therapy at the forefront of non-surgical treatment options for arthritis, as long as the treatment is performed by ethical and knowledgeable orthopedic surgeons who understand the benefits and limitations of such treatment.