mesenchymal stem cells
Long, metal catheter tubes moved back and forth under the skin of Kim Lungren’s abdomen. She lay on the operating room table while the surgeon and a nurse practitioner suctioned fat. She winced every now and then when the catheters hit scar tissue from a cesarean section she’d had.
Lungen wasn’t there for weight loss. The small amount of fat removed in about 15 minutes was incidental. What Dr. Todd Beckstead was after, lies between fat cells: mesenchymal stem cells — the cells in the body that have the potential to regenerate body tissues including bone, cartilage, ligaments and blood vessels.
He injects those cells back into the body where they can heal damaged tissue, he said. The two-hour, in-office procedure mostly takes place in his basic biochemistry lab, where stem cells are separated from the fat and concentrated.
Lungren hopes the stem cells injected into her knees earlier this month will repair the joints so she won’t need knee-replacement surgery.
“The amazing thing is, this is our own bodies’ regenerative cells anyway,” Beckstead said. “We just harvest them and have them in a higher concentration and put them where they need to be.”
Stem cell therapy is beginning to be used worldwide to repair body tissues from injury and disease. In the U.S., treatments legally are done using mesenchymal stem cells harvested from patients’ own bone marrow or fat. Beckstead collects the cells from fat, because their concentration is higher there and the procedure is less invasive, he said.
There are numerous reports of improvement from illnesses after stem cell treatment or various medical issues, Beckstead said. He tracks his success by talking with patients. There have been several avoided surgeries and complete recoveries, he said. No patients have told him they didn’t improve, and some benefit from more than one procedure, he said.
Beckstead started offering the procedure after his wife had stem cell therapy in Denver for a knee problem.
“It was a life changer,” Beckstead said. Her knee pain had kept her from walking treks on vacations and made it difficult for her to play with her grandchildren on the floor. Her pain disappeared in a matter of months, Beckstead said. Her plantar fasciitis symptoms also improved.
One of them is Mary Ann Lovelace, who sought the procedure to one knee as an alternative to surgery. After six months, standing for hours as a department store greeter no longer was a problem, and she’s still feeling improvement, she said.
“By the end of the day, I was hurting. Not now,” she said. “I wouldn’t say it’s 100 percent better, but it’s 90 percent better.”
Rhonda Watters received the treatment for arthritis. She’s experiencing less pain and stiffness in her knees and other joints, as well as more strength in her hands, she said.
“I still have pain in my hands but it was severe, but my strength is back so maybe in a year my pain will be gone too,” Watters said.
Beckstead’s procedure targets joint pain, but some seek the treatment for more than that.
Rhonda’s husband, Jude Watters, also had the treatment to help him recover from a kidney illness he suffered. He said it’s hard to measure what the stem cells have done, because he already was on the mend by the time he had the procedure.
The couple recommended the procedure to Robert Collins, a friend with advanced kidney failure from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. He’d torn his rotator cuff but wasn’t in good enough shape for surgery. He’s able to move his shoulder more since receiving the treatment he said. But another reason he sought the treatment was to also see if it might delay him needing kidney dialysis and improve his health. Blood labs showed his kidney function is up slightly, he said.
Stem cell treatment is too new for anyone to know how long the cells keep working once injected into the body or how long it takes until patients experience the full effect, Beckstead said. His wife is still experiencing improvement after two years, he said.
Some patients, like Lungren, have the stem cells injected into joints, so that most of the cells will stay there. Others have the injection in an artery so the cells can decide where the body most needs them, which is what they’re programmed to do, Beckstead said.
He believes the world is only beginning to see the future of medicine through stem cells. Just one of many examples is studies in which paralyzed rats walk again after stem cells heal transected spinal cords.
“So that’s something that’s exciting,” Beckstead said. “In the future, I imagine that paraplegia and quadriplegia will be treated with stem cells and probably very successfully.”