Stem cells have the ability to differentiate into various types of cells within the human body. This differentiation capacity, in addition to their release of growth factors and ability to manipulate the immune system’s responses, holds great promise for cell therapies and tissue engineering. Specifically, these types of cells are being used in what has been coined as Regenerative Therapy. By applying regenerative therapies to an injury or ailment, doctors have been able to reduce pain, repair and rejuvenate tissue, and return a certain level of activity to otherwise debilitated patients.
What Are Mesenchymal Stem Cells?
When we talk about stem cells in regenerative therapies what we are actually referring to are mesenchymal stem cells. Mesenchymal stem cells are “multipotent stromal cells”, which is a complicated way of saying that they are cells which are able to differentiate into a variety of connective tissues, including bone, muscle, tendon, and cartilage.
Mesenchymal stem cells are found mixed in with various cells throughout the body. They are typically harvested from bone marrow, umbilical cord tissue, or fat tissue. Once extracted from the body, these tissues must be processed in order to isolate the mesenchymal stem cells and other growth factors typically found in stem cell injections.
How Are Mesenchymal Stem Cells Harvested?
Mesenchymal stem cells are not a new phenomenon. They were first hypothesized in the late 19th century by German biologists and almost a hundred years later these theories were proven true when Russian scientists developed the first live cultures both in vitro (outside of the body) and in vivo (inside of the body) in the 1970s. Since these discoveries, various clinical trials have been held in order to test the limits of these multipotent cells.
Through these clinical trials, scientists have advanced extraction and isolation methodologies, though these are still being improved upon with further clinical trials going on today. The process for isolating mesenchymal stem cells from bone marrow, umbilical cord, or fat tissues is almost exactly the same:
- Upon extraction, the portions of the tissues are removed in a process known as aspiration whereupon the tissues are sucked through a thin needle.
- Once aspirated, the tissues are spun through a centrifuge, typically at room temperature. The centrifugal force separates liquids from solids.
- The solids are harvested and added to liquids made to cleanse the solids of impurities.
- Again, this solid / liquid mixture is spun through a centrifuge to separate the solids and liquids.
- Finally, the cleansed solids are suspended in a solution made up of various growth factors.
This is a very basic explanation of a very complicated process, but the fundamental mechanics hold true – extraction, filtering, cleansing, and amplification – these are the processes by which doctors extract mesenchymal stem cells and make them suitable for the regenerative therapies which they perform.
How Do Mesenchymal Stem Cells Work?
Like other cells in the human body, mesenchymal stem cells take their cue from the cells around them, the difference is that mesenchymal stem cells have the capacity to turn into many different types of cells based instead of serving a singular purpose. For instance, doctors can’t simply extract muscle tissue and place it on a damaged knee in the hopes of it becoming new, healthy cartilage tissue. This is not the case for mesenchymal stem cells. Once injected into a site of injury, they have the capacity to turn into almost any of the damaged connective tissue, it all depends on where they were injected.
Thus, for stem cell injections to work, it is critical to place them precisely at the site of injury in order for them to differentiate into the damaged tissue. Doctors achieve this precision in a variety of ways. A typical route for locating the best injection site is thus:
- Physical examination of the pain-inducing area using palpation and various stretches meant to flex or exacerbate the damaged tissue.
- CAT, MRI, X-ray, or Arthroscopy scans to further pinpoint the area which is damaged. These methods reveal details about the insides of an injured area which doctors could not surmise otherwise.
Once the best injection point is located, doctors will use electrodes in order to produce the best position in the muscle, bone, or cartilage for an injection. Finally, they can use a variety of guided needle technologies in order to place the mesenchymal stem cells into an injury.
What Are Mesenchymal Stem Cells Used For?
Mesenchymal stem cell injections have many benefits that conventional treatment options overlook. This is not to say that they are a replacement for conventional treatment options in all cases, but they can help to reduce recovery times, postpone invasive surgery, and reduce pain all the same. In some cases, conventional treatment options such as physical therapy, medication, and surgery may be avoided all together.
Mesenchymal stem cell injections help to treat a variety of connective tissue ailments such as:
- Swelling in joints and muscles
- Chronic pain in joints, muscles, and bones
- Loose skin
This is just a very short list of what regenerative therapies can offer, but in theory, these treatments can help treat most any disease or injury involving connective tissue.
Mesenchymal stem cells are paving a new avenue for individuals suffering from chronic pain due to connective tissue ailments. These cells are able to reduce pain, increase range of motion, and repair and rejuvenate damaged tissues because of their ability to differentiate into various types of cells. Ongoing clinical studies suggest that the only limits for stem cell therapies are our imaginations. By continuing to study these multipotent cells, hopefully one day we will be able to provide comfort to those cases which were once dismissed as untreatable.