Stem cell therapy is an exciting area of research that holds tremendous potential for helping chronic pain patients reduce their pain. Rapid advances in this field of medicine are buoying doctors’ and patients’ hopes that the exciting therapy could change lives. Advances are being made nearly every day, and as scientists further understand the nature of these cells, even more uses for them are becoming known. If you’ve ever wondered about how stem cell therapy for pain could help you, these 15 questions delve into how this therapy works and who it could be used for.
1. What is stem cell therapy?
Science has a strong interest in stem cells because of their renewing properties and the ability of these cells to develop into any type of tissue in the body of the organism. Researchers believe that they have the potential for immeasurable clinical uses in health. Research is advancing many stem cell based therapies for people who suffer from diseases such as:
- Chronic pain
- Type I diabetes
- Duchene’s muscular dystrophy
- Parkinson’s disease
- Heart disease
- Alzheimer’s disease
- Vision and hearing loss
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Spinal cord injuries
- Severe burns
- Other damaged or diseased body tissues
Mayo Clinic explains how this therapy works:
Stem cell therapy, also known as regenerative medicine, promotes the reparative response of diseased, dysfunctional or injured tissue using stem cells or their derivatives…Researchers grow stem cells in a lab. These stem cells are manipulated to specialize into specific types of cells, such as heart muscle cells, blood cells or nerve cells. The specialized cells can then be implanted into a person.”
2. What’s the difference between stem cell therapy and regenerative medicine?
Stem cell therapy is actually a type of treatment within the larger umbrella of regenerative medicine. Our longer post on regenerative medicine discusses the types of treatments available, including stem cell therapy and platelet-rich plasma injections.
3. What is a stem cell?
Stem cells are essentially blank canvases that can transform into any type of cell in the human body. Specialized cells like bone cells, liver cells, and heart cells begin as stem cells. The process of the cells transforming from blank slates into specialized cells is called differentiation.
Stem cell therapy is the process of injecting these cells into damaged areas of the body, such as arthritic knees or shoulders. The stem cells then differentiate into damaged tissue, helping to regenerate the entire area.
There are two different types of natural stem cells and one that is genetically reprogrammed within the laboratory. Embryonic stem cells are the most immature and are found within the early stages of a growing embryo, usually after it has been left to develop five to six days. After the egg and sperm have united, the fertilized egg divides and creates stem cells that differentiate into the specialized cells the body requires to function. Many techniques using stem cells for pain therapies no longer rely on these types of stem cells.
The second type of stem cell, found naturally in organisms, is adult stem cells. These are present in developed tissue, such as muscle, skin, bone, brain, and blood. Also called tissue stem cells, they can self-renew and generate one specialized cell type. Under normal circumstances these tissue stem cells, or adult stem cells, will generate the type of cells that make up the organ in which they reside. These cells are used by the body to divide and repair injured areas or regenerate into specialized cells to replace the ones that are dead or damaged.
The third type of stem cells, which are genetically reprogrammed in the laboratory, are induced pluripotent stem cells. After years of stem cell research and development, it was discovered that artificially triggering certain genetic components would prompt different cells to become pluripotent stem cells, which were similar in nature to embryonic stem cells. This helps avoid ethical concerns associated with using human embryonic tissue for research and regenerative medicine.
The following video from an Arizona pain doctor goes into detail about how stem cell therapy for pain works.
4. What are the types of stem cells?
There are two major types of stem cells: those harvested from adults and those harvested from embryonic tissues.
However, there are other ways to retrieve stem cells that reduce the use of embryonic stem cells, including:
- Blood and skin stem cells that are harvested from an adult patient’s own bodily tissues that are then reprogrammed to express embryonic characteristics
- Stem cells harvested from the umbilical cord of a baby after its birth
- Mesenchymal stem cells that are found in the bone marrow
As the Euro Stem Cell organization reports, some of these types of stem cells are more effective than others.
5. Where do stem cells come from?
One source of stem cells is human embryos. These cells are called pluripotent stem cells, and they’re very useful to researchers because they can be multiplied indefinitely in the laboratory. Although these cells are often cultivated from embryos that are just a few days old, they can also be taken from fetal tissue that’s older than eight weeks, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
The majority of therapeutic stem cells come from adults. Even though embryos are the richest source of stem cells, humans of all ages have stem cells. Stem cells give adults the ability to replace damaged tissue, heal wounds, and grow hair. The patient’s own adult stem cells are extracted, purified, concentrated, and then injected into the damaged tissue. This process is usually non-surgical and the individual has very little recovery time. Most patients report only some soreness around the site of the injection. Sometimes there is also slight bruising. There have been no reports of serious side effects from treatments using stem cell therapy.
Newer research has given scientists the ability to reprogram specialized adult cells so they essentially return to their original stem cell state. These reprogrammed cells are known as induced pluripotent stem cells. Although this ability exists, scientists aren’t sure how or if these artificially created stem cells behave differently than other types.
Despite these unknowns, the reprogrammed stem cells are already being used in the development of medicines and helping scientists learn more about specific types of diseases, according to NIH.
6. Why are stem cells important?
Stem cells have many uses, and the full spectrum of their application isn’t yet known. One way stem cells are helping researchers is by illuminating the inner workings of various diseases. Stem cells offer scientists the ability to model human disease progression in a laboratory setting.
This is exciting because many studies rely on animals with similar, but not exact, biology to humans. The more scientists can understand about human-specific disease progression, the greater insight they have regarding potential treatments.
For example, one of the earliest uses for stem cells were bone marrow transplants, used to help patients with leukemia or sickle cell anemia heal. This treatment has been used for more than 40 years. In addition, stem cell therapy may be used to treat:
- Spinal cord injuries
- Nerve damage
- Chronic pain
- Knee pain
- Hip pain
- Parkinson’s disease
- Multiple sclerosis
- Cornea injuries
- Cerebral palsy
- Cardiovascular disorders
- Severe burns
- Sports injuries
7. What’s the recent research on stem cells?
The application of most interest to chronic patients is likely the emerging field of regenerative medicine, which is the science of helping tissues regenerate. This field examines the potential of stem cells to repair damaged tissue and heal areas of the body — bone and potentially organs, too — affected by arthritis, diabetes, spinal cord injuries, nerve damage, Parkinson’s disease, and more.
Exciting research has also uncovered the potential for stem cells to expand the number of lungs available for transplant. A portion of lungs available for transplant aren’t used because they become damaged. However, research from the American Physiological Society has found stem cells could help repair the organs and prepare them to save lives.
Other recent research stories include:
- A 21-year-old paralyzed patient regained use of his arms and hands thanks to a stem cell therapy treatment
- The University of Texas Health Science Center awarded a $6.8 million grant to study stem cell treatments for adults with traumatic brain injury
- An MS patient finding the ability to walk again after trying stem cell therapy
8. What are stem cell research pros and cons?
For many of the studies underway, time is needed to fully examine the benefits and potential dangers of this treatment. Another obstacle is obtaining specific types of adult stem cells. They’re difficult to grow in the laboratory, making it hard to produce the large numbers available for research.
Another potential issue with donor stem cells is the possibility of rejection. The immune system of the recipient could reject the cells, essentially making it difficult for the treatment to work as intended and causing ancillary problems.
Finally, since this is such a new treatment area, some government agencies are calling for more oversight of its use. Others are pushing back, claiming that stem cell therapy provides a new area of treatment for patients who have exhausted all other options.
That being said, even though there are complications and roadblocks to its use, the benefits of stem cell therapy could be huge. As the American Academy of Anti-Aging Medicine notes:
“[A]n analysis of the potential benefits of stem cells based therapies indicates that 128 million people in the United States alone may benefit with the largest impact on patients with Cardiovascular disorders (5.5 million), autoimmune disorders (35 million) and diabetes (16 million US patients and more than 217 million worldwide).”
9. What’s the current governance on stem cell therapy?
California’s Stem Cell Agency gives a great overview of this process, noting:
“In order to be approved by the FDA for use in human trials, stem cells must be grown in good manufacturing practice (GMP) conditions. Under GMP standards, a cell line has to be manufactured so that each group of cells is grown in an identical, repeatable, sterile environment. This ensures that each batch of cells has the same properties, and each person getting a stem cell therapy gets an equivalent treatment. Although the FDA hasn’t yet issued guidelines for how pluripotent stem cells need to meet GMP standards, achieving this level of consistency could mean knowing the exact identity and quantity of every component involved in growing the cells.”
10. How does stem cell therapy for pain help?
Stem cell therapy is being studied for a number of chronic pain conditions, especially pain in the:
Stem cell therapy for pain could help reduce the inflammation that results in chronic pain, or it could help to heal regenerative conditions that lead to pain, such as arthritis.
11. Does stem cell therapy for knees work?
Using stem cell therapy for knee pain is one of the leading areas of research. Stem cell therapy for knees can be provided as stem cell injections or as blood platelet treatments from the body itself (another form of regenerative medicine). These two treatments may help relieve pain associated with:
- Cartilage tear
- Meniscus injury
- ACL or MCL tear
- Chronic knee pain
- Overuse conditions
The leading researchers on stem cell therapy for knee pain claim that it can help patients avoid surgery, with its associated costs and risks.
12. What about stem cell therapy for hips?
Since stem cell therapy promises to treat a number of conditions related to degenerative conditions, like arthritis and tendonitis, stem cell therapy may present a great treat option for hip pain related to these causes.
13. What about stem cell therapy for MS?
The National Multiple Sclerosis Society is leading the efforts in research, but currently reports the following:
“At present, there are no approved stem cell therapies for MS. Larger, longer-term, controlled studies are needed to determine the safety and effectiveness of using stem cells to treat MS. When the results of these and subsequent clinical trials are available, it should be possible to determine what the optimal cells, delivery methods, safety and actual effectiveness of these current experimental therapies might be for different people with MS.”
14. Can stem cell therapy alleviate back pain?
Potentially. One of our sister clinics, Arizona Pain, is participating in a study evaluating the potential of stem cells to reduce back pain related to degenerative disc disease. This progressive condition sometimes results from injury, but other times has no clear cause.
The study is exciting because it involves stem cells harvested from the bone marrow of healthy, young adults, and therefore it doesn’t come with the ethical concerns of embryonic stem cells. So far, the results have been very positive, and a significant number of people who received stem cells for their back pain have experienced reduced discomfort and improved quality of life.
This study is currently in Phase III, which is the phase immediately preceding potential FDA approval. This means it could soon be available to many more patients and potentially covered by insurance, although each insurance company’s coverage policy varies.
15. Are people looking into stem cell therapy for arthritis?
Absolutely, and the research into this area is very promising. In fact, scientists have recently uncovered the specific type of stem cell most likely to reduce arthritis pain. They’re special cells that are specifically able to rebuild tissue, bone, and cartilage, potentially offering much relief to osteoarthritis patients.
What other questions do you have regarding stem cell therapy for pain? If you’re ready to learn more about using stem cell therapy to treat your pain, click the button below to find a pain specialist in your area.