Emerging stem cell research is bringing doctors closer every day to helping patients who suffer from chronic pain improve their quality of life through this cutting-edge treatment.

Scientists know that stem cells are blank canvases with the ability to transform into specialized cells. The heart, brain, kidneys, and skin—all parts of the body were once stem cells. However, researchers are still working hard to understand the process underlying this incredible transformation so stem cell therapy can be used to help people with medical conditions such as chronic pain.

Ning Wang, a University of Illinois researcher studying the phenomenon, says:

“We want to know how (stem cells) develop into organized structures and organs. It doesn’t happen by random chance. There are biological rules that we don’t yet understand.”

Stem cell research is rapidly advancing. Scientists are learning how to influence the cells’ behavior.

Researchers like Wang are dedicated to uncovering the mystery. A team of scientists including Wang took part in a study that for the first time directed stem cells as they took the first step in differentiation.

All fetuses begin as a ball of stem cells. As the cells develop, the first step they take is separating into three sections, known as germ layers. Each of the three cell layers eventually becomes a different body system. The layers must develop in the correct order for stem cell therapy to be successful.

The outer layer forms the ectoderm, which eventually turns into structures including the skin, brain, and teeth. The mesoderm, in the middle, forms cartilage, bone, and muscle, while the inner layer, endoderm, ultimately turns into a body’s innermost workings, including the digestive and respiratory tracts.

Until recently in stem cell research, scientists influencing the differentiation of stem cells had not been successful in achieving the properly ordered layers. Wang’s team was the first to accomplish this important feat. The team was so successful in its manipulations that researchers were able to direct germ layers to form in the completely reverse order.

Knowledge gained through stem cell research will broaden applications of this powerful treatment.

Having the ability to orchestrate stem cell development is a key step for researchers, according to the study, because it will allow them to reliably reproduce it.

To achieve this first-ever feat, Wang and his team used embryonic stem cells from mice. They placed the cells in a soft gel and found that several factors influenced the formation of germ layers. Researchers manipulated three different characteristics: gel stiffness, the forces exerted by each cell on neighboring cells, and the structure of proteins the cells leave behind to build the growing embryo.

After finding the right mix of those characteristics, scientists were able to manipulate the cells to separate into the germ lines in the correct order.  Wang says:

“The potential is huge. Now we can push it even further and generate specific organs and tissues. It opens the door for regenerative medicine.”

What is regenerative medicine?

Historically, doctors have helped patients heal by cutting out damaged areas, whenever possible. However, advances in medicine, such as stem cell therapy, are creating new pathways to healing that are included under the umbrella of regenerative medicine.

This branch of medicine involves encouraging the body to heal itself by, for example, repairing eroded cartilage and damaged spinal discs. Stem cells and their ability to turn into the very tissue needing repair hold the key to this transformative medicine.

Although this treatment is still in its infancy and not yet used as a first-line therapy, stem cell research is rapidly advancing. This gives patients with chronic pain from osteoarthritis, compression fractures, degenerative disc disease, and any number of other difficult-to-treat conditions hope.

Where do stem cells for treatment come from?

Although stem cells are well known for their controversial tie with fetal development, stem cells for treatment often come from adult donors or the patient receiving treatment. Adult stem cells carry the same potential to differentiate into any cell. They’re present in the body to maintain and repair tissue as needed.

Scientists have known adult stem cells existed since the 1950s, when they first discovered the cells’ presence in bone marrow. Subsequent stem cell research has revealed these powerful cells also exist in the brain and heart, according to the National Institutes of Health.

How can I get stem cell therapy for chronic pain?

A patient’s eligibility for stem cell treatment is determined on a case-by-case basis and is currently reserved for those patients who have not had success with other treatments. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not approved stem cell therapy for chronic pain.

However, a robust amount of stem cell research is underway, and many patients qualify for participation in a study. Patients who are approved for studies frequently receive money to pay for all or part of the treatment cost. Since stem cell therapy is not FDA approved, insurance companies don’t cover the treatment cost.

What does stem cell therapy involve?

Patients receive an injection of stem cells into the area of concern. For example, if a person is experiencing knee pain resulting from osteoarthritis, the patient would receive one or more injections of stem cells into the knee.

Once the stem cells are placed in the knee, they would go to work transforming into cartilage and repairing the damaged area. There is very little recovery time associated with the treatment, and risks for infection or other adverse response are minimal.

Another use of stem cells for chronic pain is a treatment called platelet-rich plasma therapy. This treatment involves a stem-cell-rich injection made from a patient’s own blood. A doctor draws blood and then places the fluid in a centrifuge, a machine that spins very fast. The force created by the spinning results in a concentration of platelets, which are proteins found in blood that regulate cell growth and division.

The patient then receives an injection of this platelet-rich plasma into the painful area. The platelets then go to work, sending the body signals to repair itself.

Would you ever consider receiving stem cell therapy?

Image by Ed Uthman via Flickr


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