The Science and Practice of Stem Cells

By Ted Swing, Ph.D.

One of the emerging areas in medicine, including pain management, is the use of therapies involving stem cells. Though there has been some controversy over the use of stem cells derived from human embryos, research has identified other methods of deriving stem cells, including obtaining them from healthy adult donors. We are launching a new institute dedicated to providing treatment and conducting research on stem cells and other regenerative therapies.

What is a Stem Cell?

Bodily tissues are made up of different types of cells (nerve cells, fat cells, muscle cells, etc.). As cells need to be replaced, they divide to create new cells of the same type: Muscle cells create new muscle cells, skin cells create new skin cells and so on. However, if you were to trace the lineage of those specific types of cells back far enough, you would find that they came from cells that were not specific to one type of body tissue — they had the potential to become many or even all of the other types of cells. Those versatile cells are called stem cells.

Different Sources of Stem Cells

Most people associate stem cells with gestation. It is true that during pregnancy all of the organs and tissues of the fetus are formed from stem cells and consequently stem cells are abundant at this time. Though the number of stem cells present in our bodies decreases as we age, even adults have a significant number of stem cells. These can be found in various tissues, such as bone marrow, fat and blood. Placental and amniotic tissues, left over after the birth of a child, are also rich in stem cells.

How Do Stem Cells Work as a Therapy?

Because stem cells may not be present or abundant in the body part where they are needed most, stem cell therapy concentrates and delivers stem cells to the treatment area. There are different ways of doing this.

Autologous Stem Cells.

Some forms of treatment use stem cells from a person’s own body. Tissues containing stem cells, such as fat, bone marrow or blood, must first be extracted. Then the stem cells can be concentrated and injected at the treatment site (for example, a degenerated knee joint).

Stem Cell Allograft.

Stem cells can also come from a donor. Donors and recipients do not have to be matched, since stem cells do not cause the immune reaction that can lead to rejection. The same extraction process is used, but the stem cells must typically be preserved until the recipient is ready to be treated.
Once stem cells reach the treatment site, they specialize into the cells that compose specific tissues, for example, cartilage or tendons. The new cells continue to divide,
leading to regeneration and potentially reduced pain and improved functioning over the course of months.

Stem Cell Therapy in Practice

This month we launch the Arizona Pain Stem Cell Institute and will offer several types of regenerative treatments, including stem cell therapy. We will also take part in several research studies that examine the efficacy of these treatments.Treatments offered include:

Platelet rich plasma (PRP):

Blood is extracted from a patient and centrifuged. The middle layer of blood, which contains a concentration of platelets and growth factors, is separated. These platelets and growth factors can aid in healing. For example, research has found PRP to be effective in regenerating cartilage in patients with osteoarthritis. AmnioGenic Flow Therapy. Amniotic tissues collected from live births are extracted, screened and stored. These tissues contain cells capable of differentiating into various tissues and collagen matrices that serve as a framework for tissue healing and growth. This treatment is offered at a subsidized price through two new research studies: one examining the efficacy in treating joints of the lower back, and another treating joints of the upper and lower extremities (e.g., shoulders, knees).

Stem Cell Therapy:

We will soon offer a new autologous stem cell therapy (meaning patients are treated with their own stem cells). This will involve the extraction of bone marrow, concentration of stem cells and the re-injection of those stem cells at the treatment site. This treatment will also be available at a subsidized price through a research study so that we can evaluate its efficacy in treating degeneration of the lower back, hips, knees and shoulders.

If you have questions about these treatments, please feel free to contact me (Ted S) or speak with your pain specialist.

Ted Swing has more than eight years of research experience and four years of teaching experience in psychology, has published in top psychology and medical journals, and has presented his research at major conferences. He received his Ph.D. in social psychology from Iowa State University and has been the research director at Arizona Pain Specialists since May 2012.

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