Stem cell therapy is a quickly advancing treatment being used across the country. Now, it’s becoming more prevalent in eastern North Carolina to those living with chronic pain an alternative to surgery. The minimally invasive procedure is showing results in alleviating back, knee, hip and shoulder pain. Though stem cell therapy is classified by the Food and Drug Administration as experimental, patients say they’re finding relief. Meet New Bern resident and a local endodontist Dr. Donnie Luper. He was skeptical of the procedure at first.
“How did you know what those stem cells were going to differentiate into? I mean was I going to grow a foot out of my shoulder or something like that?”
Luper tore his rotator cuff 25 years ago during a tubing incident on the Trent River. A subsequent fall during a golf trip in 2015 sent him to a specialist.
“I went to see a shoulder surgeon in Richmond. He told me that he didn’t think it was a complete tear of my rotator cuff, that I could probably have a minor surgical procedure done and I asked him about stem cell.”
After talking with a friend who opted for stem cell treatment for her knee pain, Luper decided to find out more.
“My option was if I would have had that shoulder surgery and they had do that bicep tendon repair, I mean I would have been in a sling for six weeks and probably not working for three months.”
According to the Food and Drug Administration, stem cells – sometimes called the body’s “master cells” - have the ability to divide and develop into many different cell types. Each new cell has the potential to remain a stem cell or become another type of cell, such as a nerve cell, a skin cell, or a red blood cell. They may also help repair the body by dividing to replenish cells that are damaged by disease, injury or normal wear. Parkinson’s disease, spinal cord injuries, damaged organs and cancer could all be possibly treated with the use of stem cells, but more research is needed. Dr. Angelo Tellis is the owner/physician of Aegean Medical, which provides stem cell therapy to patients in Cary, Jacksonville, Morehead City and New Bern.
“The adult stem cells we call multipotent stem cells so they can only differentiate into very specific or certain kinds of tissue. Whereas the embryonic stem cells we call pluripotent and can become a variety, almost any tissue. But I only deal with adult stem cells, they’re found to be more useful in clinical applications.”
Dr. Tellis says adult stem cells are more responsive to growing tissue in very specific locations. When patients go into Dr. Tellis’ office for the two hour procedure, he starts by numbing an area of the abdomen and performing liposuction to collect one or two syringes of body fat.
“Stem cells can be found in a lot of different tissues throughout the body, but they’re actually in one of the highest concentrations in your own body fat.”
The stem cell sample is combined with platelet rich plasma or PRP collected through a blood draw.
“That has a lot of the chemical signals and messengers that activate stem cells. So I’ll typically combine that with some of the stem cells collected from the body fat and then go under x-ray guidance and put it exactly in the targeted location where we want to create that healing process.”
Soreness and stiffness can be expected immediately following the procedure and for about a week after. Dr. Tellis says the results tend to improve with time, taking about three to six months for full recovery. This was Luper’s experience in 2016.
“Really didn’t have to take any pain medications. The joint was really sore over the weekend just because of the injection of the fluid there and after that, I had a small amount of discomfort, but nothing I really had to take medication for.”
After three months, Luper says he felt 90 percent better. But he decided to get a second opinion from a shoulder surgeon.
“And he told me he thought the stem cells had done a lot but that I still had one little bone spur that was rubbing against the muscle and constantly tearing the little bit of the muscle.”
After surgery, Luper says his left shoulder started feeling significantly better in about a month. He was also able to return to one of his favorite pastimes… golf. While surgery helped eliminate all of his pain, Luper believes stem cells helped regenerate tissue that was damaged years ago.
“He said my rotator cuff muscle didn’t even look like it had been torn. I actually tore that, I’m sixty now, and I actually tore that when I was 34, 35 tubing on the river and I had to do physical therapy for about three months, but he said he saw absolutely no evidence that I’d ever had a rotator cuff tear.”
Even though some have found relief and possibly a cure through stem cell therapy, the Food and Drug Administration has not approved any stem cell-based products for use, other than HEMACORD (HE-muh-cord). According to their website, the use of stem cells raises safety concerns such as excessive cell growth, the development of tumors as well as cells migrating from the site of administration and differentiating into inappropriate cell types. And then, there’s the cost of the procedure, which is not covered by insurance. The price for the treatment ranges from $2,500 to $5,000. But for those who want to avoid major surgery and the downtime associated with recovery, the risk and cost may be worth it.
“If I’d have surgery, my deductible would have been that because I have an out-of-pocket max. And I would want to do anything to avoid surgery, especially something that would keep me out of work for three months.”
The FDA recommends that consumers interested in stem cell therapy should start a conversation with their doctor about the potential risk to benefit ratio. In addition to Aegean Medical, Advanced Health and Physical Medicine in Greenville and Regenerative Medicine Clinic of Wilmington also provide stem cell therapy in eastern North Carolina.