Stem Cell Therapy, Spine Care and Treatment

Peer Reviewed

Spine experts, Jeffrey C. Wang, MD, and Zorica Buser, PhD, share what you need to know about this controversial treatment.

Are you considering stem cell therapy to help treat your spinal pain? In this second and final installment of “Stem Cell Therapy and Spine Care,” Jeffrey C. Wang, MD and Zorica Buser, PhD continue their discussion on what you should know about stem cell therapy before pursuing this treatment.

What are the potential risks and complications associated with stem cell therapy?

Drs. Wang and Buser: We lack well-designed clinical studies to make any statements on potential benefits and risks associated with stem cell therapy. Centers using stem cells report minimal risks and complications, but a few studies have reported severe risks, such as tumorogenesis (tumor formation) potential or visual loss after the injection.

We think the major risk currently is financial—the treatments may have no effect and be a waste of money.

scientist conducting medical researchThis is an exciting time for scientists investigating design of clinical studies to evaluate the potential benefits and risks associated with stem cell therapy.

Is there a division among spine physicians about stem cell therapy?

Drs. Wang and Buser: Yes, and for a simple reason: Lack of sound science and strong clinical evidence. Many physicians are waiting for the evidence before they recommend the use of stem cells for novel treatments. Other physicians heavily advertise that they offer stem cell injections and charge cash.  

We also think there is a stigma associated with some of these stem cell centers. Mainstream spine practitioners who are waiting for stronger evidence do not support the investigational use of these injections. Some of these practitioners feel stem cell centers are taking advantage of patients who are being attracted to the injections by the advertisements and a desire to do something novel.

What do you tell patients when they ask you about stem cell therapy?

Drs. Wang and Buser: We tell patients that the evidence on stem cell therapy is inconclusive. We share that there are only few clinical trials on spine fusion and disc regeneration, and that we need more research to make any firm statements on the effectiveness of this treatment.

At the same time, we welcome discussions with patients on our basic science research and stem cell use for in vitro and animal-based studies. We are using stem cells from bone marrow to help with our spinal fusion research.

We are excited about the future potential of stem cells for spinal tissue regeneration.

How do doctors select or exclude patients from this type of therapy?

Drs. Wang and Buser: Without solid clinical evidence, it is hard to select an appropriate patient.

Furthermore, any other medical conditions a patient has will play an important role, as well as the disease severity. With severe disc degeneration, tissue engineering approaches would generally not work. Unfortunately, we suspect some centers may offer these injections without any strict indications.

Is there anything else you’d like to note about stem cell therapy for spine conditions that would be beneficial for our readers?

Drs. Wang and Buser: It is important to understand the benefits of stem cells, and we still lack the evidence and strong clinical prospective studies to know that information.

Although stem cells hold great potential, a patient’s age and comorbidities (such as smoking, diabetes, alcohol addiction, etc.) will impact the outcomes, just as they would with any other surgery.

Some important questions to discuss with your provider are:

  1. What is the right cell number per injection?
  2. What is a good carrier?
  3. Is there a difference in stem cell treatment for spine fusion and intervertebral disc regeneration?
  4. If allogenic stem cells are used, what is a chance of contamination?
  5. Are the cells modified with expansion and storage? 

Stem Cell Therapy: Is It Right, Right Now?

Stem cell therapy for spine care comes with bold promises of nonsurgical pain relief, but the evidence supporting such claims is lacking. Before pursuing this treatment, talk to your doctor about the associated risks and what long-term results you should expect. If you have any concerns or questions about going forward with stem cell therapy, you can always seek a second opinion.

Updated on: 12/26/19
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Stem Cell Therapy and Spine Care
Jeffrey C. Wang, MD
Professor of Orthopaedic Surgery
and Neurosurgery
Keck School of Medicine

Zorica Buser, PhD
Assistant Professor of Research
Orthopaedic Surgery
University of Southern California

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