Scientific advances over the past several decades have led to a multitude of new treatments for countless medical conditions including stem cell surgery. For decades, bone marrow transplant (following high dose chemotherapy to treat cancer) has relied on the ability of stem cells to repopulate the patient’s bone marrow with viable stem cells capable of forming all of the types of cells found in our blood. One of the more recent discoveries regarding stem cells is the way in which they can be harnessed to help enhance the treatment of many other conditions. As a neurosurgeon who specializes in the treatment of spinal disorders, I use human adult stem cells for surgery to help speed recovery and optimize outcomes for patients suffering from a variety of spinal conditions, and more uses for these stem cells are being discovered every day.
The topic of stem cell surgery and the treatment of medical conditions has been the subject of intense interest and even some controversy. With this article I will attempt to describe some of the ways that stem cells help in the treatment of a variety of medical conditions, as well as dispel some of the myths and misconceptions about stem cell surgery.
Stem Cell Surgery Treatment
When I am discussing a treatment plan with my patients, many of them are surprised that we will be using stem cells to aid in their recovery, as if this treatment were something out of science fiction. In reality, our bodies use stem cells every day to help keep us healthy and to repair damage done to our tissues that occurs during even normal activities.
The term stem cell usually refers to a group of cells that have the capability to replicate themselves and to also form numerous different cell types. The term totipotent stem cell refers to a cell that has the ability to grow into all the cell and tissue types found in the body, while the term pluripotent stem cell refers to a stem cell that has a somewhat more limited capability to grow into different cell and tissue types. A totipotent stem cell, when placed in the proper environment, can grow into muscle, bone, cartilage, or anything else the body needs to repair damage.
In a sense, the fertilized egg would be considered the ultimate totipotent stem cell, because it develops into a complete human being. For most practical medical applications a pluripotent stem cell is all that is needed to help the body heal.
In some patients, after exhausting all non-surgical treatments, it becomes necessary to remove either a cervical or lumbar intervertebral disc and replace the disc with something that will encourage the growth of new bone that will, over time, fill the space once occupied by the disc.
This process is called fusion, and in my practice, I use adult stem cells to help in the recovery of my patients who are undergoing spine surgery where a fusion of the spine is needed. Achieving a solid fusion has been a major focus of research in the spine surgery community for decades. Stem cells have been shown to help achieve this solid fusion by providing a collection of cells that are capable of developing into osteoblasts, a type of cell that is responsible for new bone formation.
During stem cell surgery, the patient’s own stem cells are obtained by drawing off bone marrow and then using a high speed centrifuge to isolate their stem cells. These stem cells are then introduced into the area where the fusion is desired along with other material and factors to help encourage the proper development of the stem cells into the osteoblasts needed to make new bone and ensure a solid fusion.
In addition to this very valuable use for stem cells, new and potentially even more exciting uses for stem cells are being explored every day. Recently, the introduction of stem cells into a variety of places such as hip and knee joints that are in the early stages of deterioration have shown promise in halting the usually progressive destruction of these areas.
Currently, I am preparing to begin a research study that will enroll patients who are in the early stages of disc degeneration to undergo injection of their own stem cells into the problem disc in an attempt to halt the deterioration and return the disc to its usual state of health. Hopefully, this or a similar treatment will one day make the need for spinal fusion a thing of the past.
Stem Cell Controversy
Most of the controversy associated with the stem cell surgery and medical treatments involves the use of embryonic stem cells. There is considerable misinformation regarding this topic, even among doctors. Although there are an estimated 10,000 cases a year in the country in which adult stem cells are routinely used to treat a variety of conditions, there are no routine uses for embryonic stem cells and very few clinical trials in place.
This is not because the use of these cells is prohibited, as some believe, but rather because the use of embryonic stem cells creates technical challenges in controlling the propensity of these cells to develop into cancer. Until this hurdle is cleared, the use of embryonic stem cells will continue to be severely limited.