The Future of Regenerative Medicine
Regenerative Medicine Overview
Regenerative medicine describes medical practices which focus on amplifying the body’s natural healing processes in an attempt to help regenerate unhealthy tissues and organs. Whether the tissue or organ has lost its function from age, disease, congenital defects or other damage, regenerative medicine can be a possible treatment option.
Regenerative medicine combines biology, chemistry, genetics, engineering, computer science among other disciplines in order to create therapies for the most challenging medical mysteries. In the arena of musculoskeletal medicine, several promising techniques are being used to help people with pain resulting from injuries and degenerative conditions of tendons, joints, and the spine.
Back Pain and Regenerative Medicine
As regenerative medicine continues to evolve, many patients with chronic back pain have turned to treatment options like stem cells and platelet-rich-plasma therapies. Instead of using conservative options like physical therapy and injections, these new innovative regenerative medicine treatments can help treat different spinal conditions without major surgery.
According to Dr. John Santa Ana, DO, a physical medicine and rehabilitation (PM&R) physician, “Since we are using your own cells, the limiting factors for regenerative treatments are your overall health. Essentially, every healthy person is a great candidate for regenerative medicine. Typically, young, healthy, non-smokers, who exercise regularly have the best outcomes.”
Two common spine conditions that show promise with treatment by stem cell therapy include degenerative disc disease and spinal facet disease. A 2011 study found that mesenchymal stem cells may be an alternative treatment option for those diagnosed with lumbar degenerative disease after 9 out of 10 patients that received the stem cell injection reported decreased pain and better life quality. The results of this technique also compared favorably to the outcomes of surgical treatment options like spinal fusion and artificial disc replacement.
This minimally invasive injection is placed in the damaged disc to potentially restore the structure and disc height. Not only might stem cells help the disc grow new tissue, but it may also reduce inflammation. Those with osteoarthritis, joint pain, and tendon or ligament tears may also benefit from this form of regenerative medicine.
Much like stem cell therapy, platelet-rich-plasma therapy, or PRP, is obtained from a person’s own cells. This process starts by drawing a patient’s own blood, and then separating a high concentration of platelets by using a centrifuge—a machine that spins rapidly to separate the blood components. Once the sample is processed and a platelet-rich component is isolated, the remaining PRP is injected into the damaged tissue using image guidance. PRP is rich in growth factors and inflammatory mediators, that may help heal injured tissue. PRP has been used to treat disc injuries, with some early studies showing promise for the use of PRP as an emerging treatment option for degenerative discs and disc herniation.
What Does the Future Hold?
Regenerative medicine has already made many medical advancements, so what can doctors and patients alike expect for the future? “The future of regenerative medicine is bright,” Santa Ana reassures. “We are at the cusp of a health care revolution in musculoskeletal care where interventional orthopedics will be the first option prior to steroid injections—and prior to surgery.”
Regenerative medical techniques hold tremendous potential in the arena of organ transplantation, with the hope that eventually whole organs can be grown in a lab and transplanted without fear of rejection. Currently, engineered skin and bladder tissue are being successfully transplanted. New research being conducted in this field could one day lead to regenerative treatment options for many other common health conditions like heart disease, diabetes, and Alzheimer’s. Other new stem cell treatments for patients are being used for damaged nerves and inflammation.
Outside of regenerative therapies for back pain, over 800 clinical trials are underway in hope to find more effective treatments for all health conditions. Santa Ana says, “As more data and studies come out regarding this treatment model, the health care field will have no choice than to take a serious look at this option.”
Obstacles to Overcome
Despite the advancement of regenerative treatments being used in the future, the field has some obstacles to overcome along the way. Santa Ana points out how the validity of the field as well as safety of patients could be at risk.
“There are a lot of unqualified medical and non-medical professionals in the regenerative medicine space. For one, it is currently not regulated and anyone, with or without credentials, can put up a shingle and perform stem cell injections,” says Santa Ana. “Second, the health care community will have to accept that there is a better option in managing back pain and other musculoskeletal conditions.”
Typically, options like physical therapy, epidural injections, and medications are the first treatments used to help patients with chronic back pain. Santa Ana notes how steroids and other medications have “too strong of a hold in the current medical environment” making it difficult for regenerative medicine to be widely used and accepted by physicians.
Several new and innovative treatments in the regenerative medicine field are already being used across the world for more than just spine conditions. Patients suffering from chronic back pain can benefit from treatments like stem cell therapy or platelet-rich-plasma therapy that helps amplify the growth of new tissue. As more clinical trials and studies are completed, the health care field is expected to discover therapies.
“Regenerative medicine enhances your body's natural and innate ability to heal. The key to health and healing is within all of us all along,” concludes Santa Ana.