Stem Cell Therapy & Regenerative Medicine
Stem cell therapy is an exciting medical breakthrough that uses the body’s own supply of regenerative cells to heal itself without the need for invasive surgery or addictive medications. Stem cells can be injected into virtually any part of the body, allowing it to regenerate itself and repair damage.
What is Stem Cell Therapy?
An adult stem cell is an undifferentiated cell among differentiated cells in a tissue or organ. The adult stem cell can renew itself and essentially evolve into other specialized cells that form tissue or organs. The primary role of these cells is to maintain and repair the tissues in the body. Unlike embryonic stem cells, which are defined by their origin (cells from the preimplantation-stage embryo), there is still much to learn about the origin of adult stem cells in mature tissue.
Stem cells are a blank slate – they can become anything we need them to be. Place a stem cell in a knee with a torn meniscus and it will fill in the tear. Place one in a arthritic hip and it will become a chondrocyte (cartilage) to repair the cushioning.
What are Stem Cells?
All tissue in the human body is made up of cells:
- Heart – cardiomyocytes
- Fat – adipose cells
- Muscle – myocytes
- Nerves – neurons
- Blood – red blood cells, white blood cells & platelets
All of these cells are distinct from each other and highly specialized. Despite being so different, they all start off the same – a stem cell. Stem cells are most plentiful before birth, when the human body exists as an embryo. During fetal development, stem cells are responsible for forming every organ in every part of the body. These are called embryonic stem cells.
After birth, stem cells sit in a reserve pool to replace existing cells that die, or add to existing tissue and allow organs to grow. Depending on the needs of the body, a stem cell can divide and grow to become a myocyte that joins a muscle, or a neuron that joins the nervous system. One stem cell has the potential to become any other type of cell. The body’s concentration of stem cells declines with age.
As adults, our bodies still contain stem cells in our bone marrow and fat tissue. These can be manipulated into becoming specific cell types based on the particular part of the body that needs repairing.
Scientists have been performing research on stem cells for over 50 years. Much of the work had been dedicated to embryonic stem cells – from fetal tissue and the umbilical cord. While promising results were published, using these particular stem cells can be controversial. Currently, science is focusing on adult stem cells that are found naturally in our bodies – Mesenchymal stem cells.
History of Stem Cell Therapy
Research on adult stem cells has generated a great deal of excitement. Scientists have found these groundbreaking cells in many more tissues than they once thought possible. Because of this, clinicians and researchers alike have begun to ask if these cells can be used for transplants. Adult hematopoietic, or blood-forming, stem cells from bone marrow have been used in transplants for more than 40 years. If the differentiation of adult stem cells can be controlled or manipulated, then these cells could possibly become the basis of transplantation-based therapies.
Research on adult stem cells dates back to the 1950’s, when researchers discovered that there were at least two kinds of stem cells present in bone marrow. One population, called hematopoietic stem cells, is responsible for forming all the types of blood cells in the body. A second population, called bone marrow stromal stem cells (also called mesenchymal stem cells, or skeletal stem cells by some), were discovered a few years later. This second population of stem cells makes up a small proportion of the stromal cell population in the bone marrow, and can generate bone, cartilage, fat, cells that support the formation of blood, and fibrous connective tissue.
In the 1960s, scientists studying rats discovered regions of the brain containing dividing cells that ultimately became nerve cells. This finding came contrary to popular belief that the adult brain was incapable of generating new nerve cells. It was not until the 1990s that scientists agreed that the adult brain does contain stem cells able to generate the brain’s major cell types.
As mentioned above, the concentration of adult stem cells declines with age. As such, these cells may not even be present in a particular body part where they are needed the most – like an injured shoulder or a painful knee. The premise of stem cell therapy is based on three tenets:
- Harvesting – Finding adult stem cells in your body’s tissue and extracting them.
- Culturing & Concentrating – Taking harvested cells and preparing them by purifying the stem cells and discarding the unnecessary cells.
- Delivery – Once the stem cells have been concentrated and prepared, they are injected into the area of the body that needs repair.
There are 2 basic ways this is accomplished:
- Autologous Graft – Taking one’s own stem cells to treat a particular body part. Tissues like fat, bone marrow and blood naturally contain adult stem cells. As such, these tissues are extracted from the body and prepared in order to purify and concentrate the stem cells. Once this is accomplished, the adult stem cells can be injected back into the same person’s body part of interest for treatment.
- Allograft – Taking stem cells from a donor and introducing them into another. A stem cell allograft is much simpler than a conventional allograft (i.e. organ transplant) – stem cells do not require compatibility matching or immune system suppression to prevent tissue rejection. Stem cells do not trigger an immune reaction or have a risk of being rejected. The cells are harvested from a donor and then prepared like an autologous graft. However, the cells will need to be preserved until they are ready to be used for treatment in the recipient.
As with any medical or surgical procedure, there is always a risk of potential complication. In the case of stem cell therapy, the risks are associated with harvesting and delivering. There may be irritation or pain during extraction for the harvesting phase. During the delivery phase, there is a small risk of infection (as with any injection procedure).
The most important thing to address before considering stem cell therapy is that many painful conditions can adequately treated through established treatment methods – some involving surgery while others more conservative. Stem cell therapy, while effective in many cases, is still considered experimental. The Ainsworth Institute recommends this particular treatment modality be pursued only after conservative treatments have been exhausted (physical therapy, anti-inflammatory medications, and rest). As with anything considered experimental, results may vary and not every patient will have success.
Evidence of Performance
Research on stem cells has been ongoing for over 50 years. Over the last 10 to 15 years, our understanding of stem cells has grown by leaps and bounds. Most research had been devoted to embryonic stem cells. Now, many scientists have shifted their focus to adult stem cells – Mesenchymal or Stromal rather than embryonic. These cells appear to be “smarter,” more durable, and less controversial. Publications to date have yielded promising results suggesting regeneration of damaged tissues and joints is possible, thus reducing pain and improving function.[1-3]
The Ainsworth Institute is Here to Help
If you are suffering from chronic pain and would like to see if you may be a candidate for this revolutionary new treatment, contact the Ainsworth Institute of Pain Management today. Schedule an appointment with one of our Board Certified Physicians to learn more about stem cell therapy.
 Centeno CJ, Busse D, Kisiday J, et al D. “Regeneration of meniscus cartilage in a knee treated with percutaneously implanted autologous mesenchymal stem cells”. Med. Hypotheses. 2008;71: 900–8
 Centeno CJ, Busse D, Kisiday J, et al. “Increased knee cartilage volume in degenerative joint disease using percutaneously implanted, autologous mesenchymal stem cells”. Pain Physician. 2008;11: 343–53.
 Wakitani S, Nawata M, Tensho K, et al. “Repair of articular cartilage defects in the patello-femoral joint with autologous bone marrow mesenchymal cell transplantation: three case reports involving nine defects in five knees”. J Tissue Eng Regen Med. 2007;1: 74–9.