How Do Stem Cells Work?
In the last two decades, advancements in stem cell research and technology have soared. These revolutionary advances hold a great deal of promise for patients who may suffer from a variety of medical conditions.
What are Stem Cells?
Stem cells have the unique ability to turn into many different types of cells, such as a muscle cell, a tendon cell or a cartilage cell. This process is called “differentiation”. Stem cells also function as part of a repair system that maintains and replenishes cells throughout your entire life. They achieve this by decreasing inflammation, protecting injured cells and stimulating other cells to regenerate. There are many different kinds of stem cells, each with their own specific abilities.
Embryonic stem cells are derived from embryos and have been used for research purposes in the past. They can differentiate into any one of the more than 200 cells in the body. They are only available for the treatment of patients in clinical studies.
Adult stem cells are undifferentiated cells that have a more specific ability to differentiate. There are several different types of these cells and they can replenish certain cells depending upon the specific tissue in which they live. In 1991, a unique population of adult stem cells called the Mesenchymal Stem Cell (MSC) was discovered. The MSC was noted to have an active role in connective tissue repair and the capacity to differentiate into bone, cartilage, and tendon cells.
Since then, significant progress has been made to offer safe and effective treatments using MSCs to heal injured or inflamed tissues. The most studied sources of the MSCs include a patient’s own bone marrow or adipose tissue which contain a heterogenous mixture of reparative cells.
How Can They Be Used?
Stem cell research and technology has evolved to offer many potential medical uses due to their self-renewing qualities and the ability to stimulate tissue healing. Researchers have found stem cells useful for:
● The Study of Disease Processes: Stem cells help scientists understand how diseases occur. Watching and studying stem cells as they mature into their differentiated state helps doctors understand certain diseases and how disease conditions develop.
● Drug Development: Stem cells are used to test drugs for safety and quality. Studying the effectiveness of medications on human stem cells determines their efficacy and toxicity. Stem cells can be “turned into” specific types of cells and then drugs can be tested to see how they work on those specific cells.
● Regenerative Medicine: The body’s natural ability to heal itself is harnessed by stimulating the repair of damaged, diseased or injured tissue using stem cells. Stem cells, directed to differentiate into specific cell types, offer the possibility of a renewable source of replacement cells to treat many common diseases.
Which Orthopedic Conditions have been treated with Stem Cell Therapy?
Several orthopedic conditions have been treated with stem cell therapy. High quality clinical trials have been published regarding the treatment of:
- osteoarthritis in the knee, hip or shoulder
- rotator cuff tendon tears
- achilles tendinopathy
- partial anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) tears
- non-healing bone injuries
- lumbar disc degeneration and low back pain
For more information, published scientific studies can be found at: