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Stem Cells Being Used To Treat Knee, Joint Pain

PITTSBURGH (KDKA) - After injuries from gymnastics and dance when she was younger, Linda Morning-Starpoole was having terrible knee pain.

"Sitting and standing up and getting up and moving," Linda said.

The news from her orthopedic surgeon was not encouraging.

"I was sent off with a prescription, and basically said, take this, and when it gets so bad, we'll take out your knees. And that was really upsetting to me. It was such an ugly picture that was painted for my future," Linda said.

Traditional treatment might involve steroid injections, physical therapy, and joint replacement.

But Linda wanted an alternative. When she first heard about using stem cell injections, she was very intrigued.

"The thought of me healing me with my own self is what sold me on the procedure," Linda said.

Here's how it works.

Doctors use a needle to extract bone marrow from the crest of the hip bone. It's then sent to a lab, where it is spun down to get at the layer of stem cells -- cells that have the potential to become any type of cell.

The stem cells are then combined with the patient's platelets, a type of blood cell involved in healing. Then, it's given back to the patient. The idea is to have the stem cells turn into new tissue and improve pain and function.

"Via the needle, we are able to place the stem cells into the area where the tissue damage is," Dr. Marc Adelsheimer said.

Typically, this is done for wear-and-tear arthritis of the knees, though it can be done for hips, shoulders, ankles, and spine. Patients usually notice improvement by three months, with full benefit in one year.

Doctors at Allegheny General Hospital are doing something similar. They inject stem cells that are already destined to become connective tissue, such as blood and lymph fluid, bone and cartilage.

"They get relief for a significant amount of time. Some people up to a year. Some people two years. Is it something that has reversed the process of aging of the knee? No," Dr. Ed Snell said.

Stem cells can come from blood, bone marrow, fat, and placentas. For reasons that aren't completely understood, doctors have seen that the injections dramatically decrease inflammation.

It's FDA approved based on safety. However, there haven't been enough consistent studies to show how well it can work for everyone. Because of that, the ideal dose, frequency, and effects haven't yet been worked out. And there's no long term information about how people do. At most, five years.

"Applying it to the whole population right now before the evidence is there is premature," Dr. Jorge Rivero Becerra said.

Because this is such new territory, stem cell treatments can be costly. The cost can range from a couple hundred dollars to tens of thousands of dollars.

"Most insurance carriers are not going to cover it because the cost is prohibitive," Dr. Patrick DeMeo said.

For Linda, it wasn't about the money. In fact, because she believes in the treatment so much, she's going back to have the other knee done.

"I have a grandson. Run with my grandson and play with him. How can you put a price tag on that?" Linda said. 'If I feel as good in my left knee as I do in my right, watch out dance studios."


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