Stem Cell Therapy and Spine Care

Spine experts, Jeffrey C. Wang, MD, and Zorica Buser, PhD, shed light on the science—and stigma—of stem cell therapy.

Stem cell therapy shows major potential for spine care, and medical practices offering this therapy are reporting a surge of interest from patients. With the promise of regenerating spine tissues affected by degenerative disc disease, stem cell therapy might be the nonsurgical solution to back and neck pain.

But, those big claims don’t currently have a strong evidence base to support them. If you’re weighing the risks and benefits of this enticing, new treatment for spine pain, it’s important to learn as much as you can about it.

embryonic stem cells stained blue

To clarify the current state of stem cell therapy for spinal disorders, SpineUniverse reached out to Dr. Jeffrey C. Wang, Professor of Orthopaedic Surgery and Neurosurgery at the USC Spine Center in Los Angeles, and Dr. Zorica Buser, Senior Research Associate in the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery at the University of Southern California Keck School of Medicine.

In this two-part series, Dr. Wang and Dr. Buser detail what you need to know about the current state of stem cell therapy for spinal disorders. Part 1 begins the science of stem cell therapy. 

Q: How does stem cell therapy work?
Drs. Wang and Buser: Stem cells are undifferentiated cells that can divide and renew for a long period of time, and with the right stimuli they can differentiate (develop) into various specialized cells. Furthermore, research has shown that stem cells have anti-inflammatory properties.

The primary role of stem cells in a cell-based therapy is to replace damaged cells to stimulate tissue regeneration. In the degenerative spine, stem cells could aid by decreasing inflammation, developing into bone or disc cells, and by replacing damaged tissue with new matrix. For example, bone marrow stem cells may aid in bone formation. Ultimately, we strive to use stem cells to replace damaged cells, such as in a spinal cord injury, and hopefully repair or regenerate the nerves.

stem cells can become any type of cell in the body

Q: Are stem cells the only type of cells used in this therapy?
Drs. Wang and Buser: No. In the spine field, two other types of cells called osteoblasts and chondrocytes have been used. However, the clinical evidence and basic research on those cells are lacking. On the other hand, bone marrow aspirates that contain cells and growth factors are currently used in spinal fusion.

Q: What types of spine problems are reportedly helped by stem cell therapy?
Drs. Wang and Buser: There is a lack of evidence and science to match a stem cell therapy to a specific spinal disorder. However, certain clinical trials and health care facilities are using stem cells to treat low back pain and disc degeneration, and during spinal fusion surgery.  

Q: Is stem cell therapy approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)?
Drs. Wang and Buser: No. The evidence is not yet available to gain FDA approval.

Q: Is the use of a patient’s own stem cells considered an off-label use of this biological technology?
Drs. Wang and Buser: For a product to be used off label, it must be FDA-approved for initial indication. As the use of patient’s own stem cell is not regulated by the FDA, it is unclear if it is considered off-label use. However, we are not aware of on-label uses of stem cells for spinal regeneration.

Q: Without FDA approval, insurance will not cover the treatment. What may treatment cost? And, does treatment require multiple visits?
Drs. Wang and Buser: The costs vary, and there is no standardized protocol for the number of treatments because the clinical evidence is lacking. Other factors that affect cost and treatment are the specific spinal disorder and number of spinal levels impacted. Some patients might require one injection, and some might need several visits.

Currently, most patients are paying cash for the injections, so some physicians and health care facilities are capitalizing on this trend. Although we cannot speak for any particular facilities, some are making a lot of money by charging cash—and patients are willing to pay.

Updated on: 05/23/17
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Stem Cell Therapy, Spine Care and Treatment
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Stem Cell Therapy, Spine Care and Treatment

Are you considering stem cell therapy to help treat your spinal pain? What you should know about stem cell therapy before pursuing this treatment.
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