The Spectacular Now: The Marvel of Stem Cells
Stem-cell treatment has become increasingly popular for elite athletes—including Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning, who underwent the procedure in Europe in 2011—seeking to heal orthopedic trauma and degeneration. Orthopedic spine surgeon Kenneth Pettine, MD, co-founder of the Premier Stem Cell Institute, The Spine Institute, and Rocky Mountain Associates in Orthopedics in Johnstown, Colorado, has successfully treated patients with a range of orthopedic problems, including back and neck injuries and arthritis, using bone marrow concentrate (BMC). This fluid is composed of the patient’s own mesenchymal stem cells (which can become cartilage cells, bone cells, or fibroblasts), as well as red and white blood cells and other bone-marrow components. For this procedure, the patient is mildly sedated while the doctor draws bone marrow from the patient’s hip. The marrow is then spun in a centrifuge and injected into the area of injury.
Dr. Pettine believes BMC provides relief from injuries because it has anti-inflammatory properties; it stimulates blood vessel development, increasing blood flow to an injured area; and the stem cells help replace damaged tissues with new, healthy cells. Dr. Pettine himself recently underwent BMC treatment for arthritis in his ankles and a knee. After a month, he says that his knee, which he had considered replacing, is now 50 percent better. But he acknowledges what he calls “legitimate criticism that [BMC therapies] have not been subjected to a prospective randomized study,” and that most clinics are not collecting follow-up data on these procedures. At the Spine Institute, he and his staff are tracking outcomes of 400 patients.
He predicts that these therapies will reshape the practice of orthopedic medicine: There may come a day when he will no longer perform 10 surgeries a week. Patients in his clinic pay $5,000 to $7,000 out of pocket for BMC treatment, but that is a fraction of the $50,000 to $75,000 charge to insurance when Dr. Pettine operates on a patient’s back. “In three to five years, insurance companies are not going to authorize most spine surgeries, or hip or knee replacements, until patients fail this therapy,” he says.