Depending on your point of view, stem cells are either something medical science shouldn’t be messing around with or rich with possibility for treating any number of serious ailments. And it’s looking increasingly as if some types of chronic pain especially back and knee pain may be among the conditions for which these cells are potentially helpful.
According to a fact sheet on adult stem cells released by the New York Stem Cell Summit in 2012, about 1 million people have already been treated with their own stem cells (what’s called autologous stem cell therapy) since the 1980s.
While embryonic stem cells are a simple, precursor cell that can develop into tissues and organs (and, as their name indicates, they come from embryos), adult stem cells are “repair cells” their function is to begin the cascade of healing when the human body is injured,” says Robin R. Young, the CEO of life science research firm PearlDiver Technologies and the author of the fact sheet.
Stem cells are taken from a part of the body with many stem cells and implanted into another part that needs repairing and where the cells aren’t plentiful. Adult stem cells can be taken from several sites, including bone marrow and fat tissue.
Whatever the controversy about stem cells (and most of the debate has centered on embryonic cells), it’s clear that this is a growing market. Young’s fact sheet notes that in 2010 alone, the number of U.S. companies supplying stem cells doubled and that more than 90,000 patients were treated with these therapies.
A forecast of the main scenarios in which the cells are likely to be used include a number of pain-related conditions, including orthopedic (the biggest category), diabetes therapy, and nerve repair.
So far, back pain is one of two pain problems for which adult stem cells are most used and researched. In an animal study last year in the Journal of Neurosurgery: Spine, stem cells were injected into the degenerated lumbar disks of 24 sheep, which were then checked to see if the cells had helped the disks repair themselves. Researchers found that the stem cells did improve the disks, suggesting that the same result may be possible in humans, though more studies are needed.
In May, a small Spanish study of 12 participants tested the effectiveness of stem cells taken from bone marrow in treating chronic knee osteoarthritis. The scientists followed the patients for a year after injecting the cells and got encouraging results. They found improvement in the knee cartilage, and most patients experienced a relief of symptoms, according to a survey they answered about their discomfort and ability to do ordinary activities.
If you do a Google search on stem cells and pain, it’s clear that many doctors are already using stem cell therapy to treat osteoarthritis of the knee and several types of back pain, and athletes in particular are being targeted as candidates for the treatment.
But that doesn’t mean that it is necessarily safe, well-researched, or regulated. In fact, the Food and Drug Administration cautions that “consumers need to be aware that at present other than cord blood for certain specified indications there are no approved stem cell products.”