Tears of the meniscus frequently sideline professional athletes, but the injury impacts over 1 million people on average per year, frequently forcing people to give up their favorite activities. Treatment for the painful condition often includes rest, physical therapy, and for many, surgery to bring relief. However, stem cell researchers have tested a new method of treatment that involves the use of stem cells taken from the patient and potentially have found a new way to heal the knee – from the inside out.
This new therapy, known and the Cell Bandage, has been developed to treat patients who have tears in the white zone of the meniscus, the area in which the 90 percent of meniscus tears occur. The meniscus is a soft, C-shaped ligament that cushions the knee during movement, and if it becomes damaged, it can impact a patient’s mobility and function. The white zone of the meniscus is the center of the ligament and has a restricted blood supply. As a result, the body’s ability to repair damage in this area is very limited because the necessary oxygen and nutrients needed for healing cannot be delivered. Even patients who undergo surgery in order to repair their white zone meniscus tears face long recovery periods and many of these surgeries are unsuccessful in returning patients back to their pre-injury lifestyle. Many individuals with a white zone meniscus tear choose to have the meniscus completely removed instead of undergoing surgery, an action that puts them at risk of developing osteoarthritis, a painful condition also known as degenerative joint disease.
Recognizing limited blood supply as an impediment to healing, the researchers behind the Cell Bandage designed the product to encourage cells to regenerate in the injured tissue. The product was tested in five patients with white zone meniscus tears. The test procedure used stem cells taken from the patient’s bone marrow that was grown along a membrane, and then surgically reintroduced into the injured meniscus into the middle of the white zone. The results of the test procedure one year later showed patients to have a totally healed meniscus and improved mobility. Two years after the procedure three patients still had a meniscus that was intact, and had returned to their normal lifestyles. The remaining two suffered an injury of the meniscus that required surgical removal of it entirely.
While the Cell Bandage trial’s success is exciting, nonsurgical options that use stem cells to repair the knee and joint injuries have been in the works for several years. Dr. Bill Johnson, M.D., a Dallas, Texas, physician, has long used adipose fat stem cells to treat patients.
Adipose fat stem cells and stem cells taken from bone marrow are both mesenchymal stem cells. Mesenchymal stem cells, also known as MSCs, are stem cells that have the ability to differentiate into different types of tissue. MSCs develop into the connective tissues like ligaments, muscles, and cartilage. They also develop into bone, the vascular system, and nerve cells. Despite the fact both types are mesenchymal, their collection methods are very different, along with their abilities to heal. “Adipose fat stem cells easily collected through liposuction, while MSCs that come from bone marrow are harder to harvest. Adipose fat stem cells are significantly higher in volume than stem cells collected from bone marrow, as well,” says Johnson. “Adipose fat stems cells are also significantly more potent when it comes to healing.”
Johnson harvests adipose fat stem cells directly from the patient using liposuction, and reintroduces them intravenously and through injection at the site of injury. One reintroduced, the stem cells begin repairing the impacted tissue. “Adipose fat stem cells are ideal for treating injuries like tears in the meniscus or rotator cuff. These injuries typically do not respond well to standard treatments like medication, immobilization or even surgery,” explains Johnson. “Use of stem cells versus traditional treatments for injuries that are caused by overuse or occur as a result of tearing allows patients to experience a quicker recovery, but a more complete recovery, as well.”