Written by Mark W. McFarland, DO
A photo of stem cells under an electron microscope.
Although the field of medicine has seen some incredible advances over the past century, much of what physicians do for their patients is treat symptoms and remedy disease or injury through surgery. For some conditions, the best we can do is to provide palliative care, managing pain and dysfunction with medications and limited treatment options that haven’t changed much over the years.
Regenerative Medicine is a real game-changer in that it potentially allows physicians to heal patients in ways never before thought possible. Because of advancements in cellular biology, immunology, molecular engineering and refinements in existing technologies, science is unlocking the previously inaccessible regenerative power of the patient’s own cells to rebuild damaged or diseased tissue, bone or organs. This is done by using either the patient’s own cells or tissues for healing or by using donated cells for that purpose. Because of this potential, diseases like diabetes, heart disease, conditions affecting the central nervous system and arthritis may one day be cured, instead of managed.
For many years, we have used organs donated by live or deceased persons for transplantation into diseased patients for the purposes of saving their lives. We have also used donated bone marrow for the treatment of leukemia and other types of cancers. While there have been many successes, organ rejection and the shortage of viable organs for donation has been an on-going problem for the patient and the medical community. Regenerative Medicine could make these worries a thing of the past.
Regenerative Medicine is divided into several subspecialties: Rejuvenation, Regeneration and Replacement.
Rejuvenation involves using the bodies’ cells to heal itself. Just like the skin can repair itself, so can more complex tissues, like the heart and lungs. Researchers are trying to figure out how these highly specialized cells can be encouraged to more actively participate in the healing process to positively affect outcomes for patients who suffer from heart and lung disease, for example.
Regeneration requires the delivery of cells or cell products to certain areas of the body to stimulate healing of diseased or damaged tissues or organs. This delivery is done by injection and can heal musculoskeletal types of conditions, such as arthritic joints, tendinitis, and tendon tears, for example.
Replacement involves replacing damaged or diseased organs with healthy cells, tissues or organs from living or deceased donors. This includes being able to grow healthy organs in a laboratory for implantation from the patient’s own cells, effectively ending organ shortages, the issue of organ rejection and the challenge of patient immunosuppression.
Regenerative Medicine relies heavily on the use of stem cells. These specialized cells can develop into many types of cells, through a process called differentiation. So the same cell could develop into either a skin, heart, brain or lung cell, just by where it was implanted. That is one smart cell! Because these cells are so friendly to the tissue where they are delivered and implanted, their uses are endless. These cells can also be collected and reprogrammed in a lab to give them specific characteristics to treat a certain problem or disease.
In the early days of stem cell research, the cells were collected from human embryos, with all the attending ethical and moral issues regarding their use. Today, stem cells are donated by the patient from their own fat or bone marrow. Alternatively, they can be collected from placentas of babies born by C-section in accredited hospital collection centers. The parents’ consent to this before delivery and are paid for the amniotic or cord blood stem cells, which would otherwise be thrown away.
Certain types of stem cells seem to respond better to certain types of illness. Cord blood stem cells show great promise in treating cardiovascular disease, brain injury, stroke, nervous system disorders and diabetes. Autologous stem cells cannot be rejected and some studies show that 1 out of every 3 people could benefit by treatment with Regenerative Medicine.
While it may seem like something out of a science fiction movie, Regenerative Medicine is here and its potential for healing injury and disease is limitless. The physicians of Orthopaedic & Spine Center are excited to bring you information on the most cutting-edge treatments available for your health and well-being. We will be offering Regenerative Medicine to our patients as of June 2015. For more information, please contact me or Dr. Raj Sureja for a consultation to learn if Regenerative Medicine may be right for you.
Mark W. Mcfarland, DO, is a Fellowship-trained, Board-Certified Orthopaedic Spine Specialist whose areas of expertise include: Spine and Total Joint Replacement of the knee. Named a “Top Doc for 2015” by Coastal Virginia Magazine, Dr. McFarland practices at Orthopaedic & Spine Center in Newport News, VA.