You’ve probably heard of stem cell therapy. The discovery is pretty recent. Embryonic cells, which are the nucleus of the treatment, were only discovered in 1998.
Research in the field of stem cell therapy has soared. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has spent as much as $1.43 billion so far on stem cell research.
In Singapore, research on stem cell research has generally received positive support, specifically from the government. The assistance has yielded results — Singaporean doctors are the first in the world to be able to cure anemia using using stem cells in 2001.
What has the medical world so excited over this emerging field of therapy?
Most of the diseases that afflict humans are some type of degenerative disease due to aging. Ligaments tear, aging wears down tissue. The cells, organic building blocks of life, gradually lose their ability to repair themselves, decreasing their function. It’s the price of living, and yearly millions suffer from degenerative diseases like arthritis, multiple sclerosis, and Parkinson’s disease.
Imagine a treatment that can reverse all of these effects. Doctors can use just grow replacement neurons, tissues, and organs to cure a variety. When you break a part, just ask doctors to grow another part to replace it.
Sounds like the stuff of science fiction, but that’s the basic promise of stem cell therapy. These cells can “differentiate” into all types of cells, and can also reproduce into the same type of cells. This ability means they can be used to treat a variety of human illnesses, from minor to non-threatening. Stem cells can be used to grow new neurons for individuals suffering from neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s. They can repair damage to major organs like the heart and spinal cord. Scientists have been able to regrow damaged teeth.
We’re still far from maximizing the full potential of stem cell therapy. Most therapies are still relegated to clinical trials until proven safe. The journey from lab to consumer usually takes a couple of decades.
One of the most promising stem cell therapies already in clinics is for knee repair and cartilage regeneration.
Stem Cell Therapies for Knees in Singapore
Although not officially recognized as mainstream treatment for conditions like osteoarthritis, many citizens opt into stem cell therapy in hopes of improving their prognosis. Stem cell treatment is particularly helpful for elderly patients because of its minimally invasive nature.
Cartilage regeneration via stem cells is also another way to mitigate or delay full knee replacement surgery, a procedure that can significantly change one’s lifestyle. Over 600,000 people every year get a knee replacement surgery. Stem cell therapy is a promising alternative, especially for individuals with active lifestyles like athletes and people with physically demanding jobs.
How does it work?
Despite what you may think about stem cell therapy, not all procedures require embryonic stem cells (ES), or cells cultivated from donated embryos. Stem cell therapies for the knee often involves adult stem cells called mesenchymal stem cells, which can become fat, bone, and cartilage. These cells are also regenerative, and can help repair and even reverse damage
Osteoarthritis is difficult to treat using traditional methods because cartilage generally does not do a very good job of repairing itself. Damage builds up and erodes the cartilage over time, resulting in pain and increasing loss of function. An infusion of fresh, new stem cells promotes formation of new tissues that can repair and support defective cartilage.Stem cell therapy is done in the operating room with arthroscopy for the knee.
Is it effective?
Stem cell therapy in knee and cartilage repair has shown promising results. Here are just a few findings from studies conducted worldwide:
- The world’s first blind-placebo study on stem cell treatments for arthritis found that stem cells may have a whole-body regenerative effect after participants reported decreased pain and improved mobility in both knees, not only the one injected with stem cells. (Source)
- Knees injected with stem cells fare better after 5 years than knees that were not treated. (Source)
- Patients who received a high dosage of stem cells report less pain and show significantly less cartilage damage than those who received lower doses. (Source)
What happens during stem cell injections to the knee?
Adult stem cells are found in fat and bone marrow, and are extracted using a minimally invasive process. The cell are isolated and then concentrated using machines to remove unnecessary components. This is a process requires technical skill and expensive equipment, and is part of the reason why stem cell therapies for knees can be pricey. The mixture is then injected directly into the damaged cartilage to facilitate the healing process.
Patients should expect at least minimal pain. The whole procedure takes a little over an hour, from extraction to injection. Inflammation is a part of the body’s natural healing process, so patients should expect soreness a few couple of days after the procedure. After all, it’s the stem cells’ job to kick start regeneration.
Following stem cell injections, orthopaedic doctors and surgeons will often require physical therapy to help the body get used to working with the new tissues. Indeed, post-treatment rehabilitation has been linked to better outcomes for osteoarthritis patients treated with stem cells.
What risks does stem cell therapy have?
One benefit of stem cell therapy for the knee is that the stem cells are harvested from the patient, instead of a donor. This decreases the risk of graft-versus-host disease, where the recipient’s body rejects the donor’s cells.
However, as with any medical procedure, stem cell therapy still carries some risks. Among them are the risk for infections at the harvest and injection site.
The therapy may have varying levels of results. Some individuals, particularly those with advanced knee damage, may need more than on injection not only into the defective cartilage, but also to the tendons and supporting structures of the knee. A common misconception is that stem cell therapy is a one-shot treatment, where in many cases, it is not.
If you have any questions, you can ask Dr. Dutton of the Dr. Andrew Quoc Dutton Orthopaedic and Sports Clinic. Dr. Dutton has been in the clinic practice since 1996, and is the recipient of the 2003 Singapore Young Investigator Award for his work on studying stem cell therapies for the knee. He has also been awarded numerous grants by the government for continued research on stem cells and their applications for cartilage repair and bone grafts.