Finding Treatment with Personal Stem Cells
By Claudia Mosby
While every body is different, each possesses the power to help heal itself through trillions of stem cells, particularly hopeful news for people living with chronic pain and systemic health conditions.
These powerfully regenerative, non-specialized cells offer new potential for treating maladies ranging from arthritis, wound healing and bone fractures to multiple sclerosis, stroke and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
“I love treating pulmonary disease because we can give stem cell therapy to a patient intravenously and through inhalation to slow the descent of respiratory decline,” says Dr. Robert Ghelfi of the Northern California Stem Cell Treatment Center in Redding.
Such chronically debilitated patients will not be up running marathons, but Ghelfi says, “They are able to start doing a little bit more than they could do before, maybe walk around the block or go out and tend their garden.”
Treating an individual who is both the stem cell donor and the recipient is currently the only FDA-approved method of such therapy in the United States. More than two decades ago, the mere mention of stem cells was shrouded in mystery and controversy. Dr. Daniel Goodman of LifeSpan in Redding explains why.
“A lot of the debate surrounding stem cells started with the banning of fetal stem cell research” under former President George H. W. Bush, he says. “As physicians specializing in stem cell therapy, we are permitted to take stem cells from adult persons for their own use."
Stem cell therapy is being used increasingly in regenerative and anti-aging medical applications with people for whom conventional interventions may either cause anxiety or have proved dissatisfying.
“The people we are seeing, in general, have traveled a medical path where the next step is either not very good or non-existent,” says Ghelfi. “We have to take that seriously.”
Although our bodies naturally produce stem cells, some areas (like tendons and ligaments) have poorer blood flow, says Goodman, and cannot naturally get these regenerative cells in order to heal well.
Harvesting them from an area of the body rich in their production—fat tissue or bone marrow—and then injecting and/or inhaling those cells can improve health outcomes.
Goodman, a former anesthesiologist, is one of the few therapists in the country to perform bone marrow extraction because he says it yields cells rich in nutrients and growth factors not found in fat tissue.
“This is especially important in older patients whose stem cells are not as potent,” says Goodman. “Using stem cells from both sources is critical when the goal is to regenerate difficult-to-heal cartilage or nerve tissue.”
People’s stem cell production decreases with age. For example, a patient who experiences healing after one treatment in her 40s or 50s may, by the age of 65 or 70, require several treatments and a longer healing time before improvement is noticed.
The power to heal resides not in the cells themselves, but in the protein and chemical “juice” they manufacture, Ghelfi says, adding, “This ‘juice’ helps the flat, non-robust, weak and sickly cells regenerate.”
Rehabilitation time is minimal, he adds, as are risk, pain or debilitation with this type of therapy. However, “there is always a risk of infection and spine injections cause some discomfort for people,” he says. “Liposuction (for extraction of stem cells from fat) is tolerable for most.”
All of this comes at a cost, however, and insurance companies still view stem cell therapy as experimental and will not pay for it. The average cost of treatment ranges from $5,000 to $7,000.
“We are really in the infancy of this therapy,” says Ghelfi. “I think eventually it will be part of a more generalized procedure. It is, however, at least several years away.”