PITTSBURGH (KDKA)- Sharon Germain had first-hand experience with stem cell transplantation -- twice.
"When I was given this opportunity and when I see with dogs that we have treated here, oh yeah. I was on-board 200 percent," Germain said.
Germain works with Dr. Mike Hutchinson at Animal General Hospital in Cranberry.
Dr. Mike is one of the world's experts in stem cell transplantation.
Germain had seen how well it worked in her own dog, Panzer, who was treated with stem cells after tearing an ACL in his knee last year.
"I knew that it was a good thing, but it has exceeded all of my expectations," Germain said.
But, she's not just talking about her dog. She too is a stem cell recipient.
"Honestly, didn't realize how much pain I was in until after I had this last procedure, and people said, 'What did you do? You are smiling. You are so much happier.' So, I'm thinking, 'Wow. How bad did I look?'" she said.
Germain knew she had knee problems. Two years ago, she had a complete replacement in her left knee. Based on the chronic pain in her right knee, she figured she would have to have it replaced as well.
In July, she became one of the first patients in the United States to have stem cells. Millions of purified stem cells from her own body were injected into her chronically painful and degenerative right knee.
"Got to the point of very depressing," Germain said. "I couldn't do what I wanted to do. I still have a house that needs to be finished. I said, 'No, I don't want to do it' because I couldn't, and that was very, very frustrating."
Dr. Mark LoDico, of Advanced Pain Medicine, is a board certified anesthesiologist. He is using stem cells in patient-funded research trials to treat joint pain.
"Yes, we fixed a knee, but what now what she's got is a whole lot of hope a whole lot of enthusiasm," he said.
Stem cell transplantation begins with harvesting fat from the patient's body via liposuction. There are an enormous number of stem cells in fat. There are other tissues in the body to get stem cells, notably bone marrow, but harvesting from marrow requires drilling into the bones.
LoDico said by taking stem cells from fat, there are many advantages.
"When you take it from fat, there is more than enough to literally process it, concentrate it and put it right back into the body in about an hour or two," he said.
Researchers claim numerous advantages to this method. The stem cells are the patient's own cells. There is no chance of rejection when they are re-injected into the joint. By removing fat, purifying and concentrating the stem cells, and then re-injecting them in a matter of hours, the possibility of contamination from growing them in an external culture is greatly reduced. Also, research suggests that re-injecting a high concentration of cells into the joint makes a huge difference.
"The numbers of cells is critical," said LoDico. "Imagine if you send enough workers to a job site to put up a building, the more workers you have, the faster you are able to construct the building. The same is true with stem cells."
Germain can't believe how well it worked.
"When I went back in for my first check, and they said to me, 'What is your pain? Zero to ten?' and I said, 'Ha. Minus one. I have no pain,'" she said.
It was just three days after getting stem cells that Germain claims her knee pain was gone.
"The Fourth of July I had my own celebration because I got up that morning and I literally got up out of bed and walked," she said.
While LoDico is encouraged by the results enjoyed by Germain and dozens of other patients, he remains cautious.
"In America, people are being sold all sorts of false promises so I would not have gotten involved in it unless I really answered the question, 'Is this something I would do for myself, my family or friend?'" he said.
Seeing Germain return to the joys of her daily life, Dr. LoDico believes stem cells could greatly reduce the number of joint replacement surgeries in America.
"I think we are going to see a large portion of people who are going for total knee arthroplasties, total knee replacements, total shoulder replacements, those numbers are probably going to be cut in half," he said.
Sharon is convinced she is growing cartilage in her knee. An MRI is scheduled for January to look at the healing in the joint.
Success stories like Germain's are almost impossible for physicians to believe. Dr. LoDico said the results from the patient study are being closely monitored.
"The FDA is asking us to provide them with data along the way so in case this is injurious in some way, in case it doesn't really hold a promise that we believe it does, they have the opportunity to say, "Hey. Wait a minute. Stop. We don't want this to go any further," he said.
Sharon paid nearly $7,000 to have the stem cell injection. Because it is not FDA approved yet in the United States, it is not covered by her health insurance.
When asked if she can put a price on her health, Sharon laughed.
"I'm probably worth a couple million dollars if not a billion at this point," she said.
Then she laughed again. After she paused, she added that getting stem cells was like hitting the lottery, but then she corrected herself.
"I am sure everybody would be happy winning lotto, but after a while that disappears. I'm still moving. To me, that's worth my weight in gold," she said.
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