Are Stem Cells Better Than Most Common Treatments for Knee Pain?
Some of the most convincing evidence for the use of stem cell therapy exists for arthritis of the knee. While we can’t comment much on the use of stem cells for arthritis in other joints, each joint manifests unique results in our clinical practice, with knees showing particularly beneficial outcomes.
What’s the Evidence Stem Cells work for knee arthritis?
First, let us look at literature which illustrates a series of cases as a “proof of concept” type of study. Dr. Chris Centeno developed a method of using bone marrow derived stem cells through his patented and marketed Regenexx™ stem cell clinics, which are based in Colorado. Dr. Centeno published his findings from his patient registry evaluations, wherein he looked at 373 patients who received this treatment in the form of an injection into the osteoarthritic knee. He examined these patients at one, three, and six month intervals, as well as once a year. Over this period of time, Dr. Centeno found that all his patients showed improvements in pain and function, and that the severity of the arthritis did not have an impact on the outcome.There is, however, a problem with such a study: it does not compare the treatment in question against another form of treatment, allowing us to determine which treatment may be a better choice.
Stem Cells Better than Hyaluronic Injections (Chicken Fat)
If we now compare the results of bone marrow derived stem cells to commonly accepted non-surgical treatments for osteoarthritis of the knee, we can start to evaluate which treatment is superior.
Spanish researchers performed such a study when they compared cultured bone marrow stem cells to a commonly treatment called Hyaluronic Acid (sometimes known in the United States as rooster injections or chicken fat injections to the knee). Hyaluronic injections are a very common form of treatment in the United States; over 4 million of these injections are given each year, and it is a commonly accepted and covered treatment by many health insurance carriers. These Spanish researchers compared a form of cultured bone marrow stem cells taken from a separate individual, and injected it into the knee of patients. Another group received the standard single injection of hyaluronic injection. Both sets of patients were followed for a year, being monitored with surveys and an MRI.
At the end of one year, the stem cell recipient patients showed significantly lower pain scores and higher functionality scores. In addition, the group that received the stem cell treatment had improved MRI findings.
Stem Cells Better than Arthroscopy and Micro-fracture.
If we compare bone marrow derived cells to commonly accepted surgical treatments for arthritis, we also find some interesting results. One common surgical treatment used to treat isolated areas of arthritis of the knee is to debride, scrape, or puncture holes in the areas where there is exposed bone. (This action can only be done in patients who have good cartilage surrounding the worn area.) These techniques were made very popular for professional athletes suffering from high impact trauma. The original form of this surgery was developed in Okemos, Michigan by Dr. Lanny Johnson, who invented most of our modern arthroscopic procedures.
The procedure was further promoted by Dr. Steadman at the famous Vail Clinic. This updated procedure poked or drilled small holes within the exposed bone in hopes that this would allow stem cells from the bone of the knee to fill in the space, stimulating healing. This method is currently known as a micro-fracture technique. However, this procedure involved a degree of pain, as the small breaks require the patient to maintain a very strict adherence to limited weight bearing.
Dr. Koh from South Korea’s Center for Stem Cell and Arthritis Research decided to compare the results of stem cells taken from fat and fixed with a special type of fibrin glue to a micro-fractured area of the knee, and compare this to a standard microfracture technique. He followed over 40 patients in each group for over two years. During this time, he not only compared their MRI’s, but also was able to perform a visual arthroscopic examination and biopsy of most of the participants in the study - 57 of the 80 patient, to be exact. Dr. Koh and his research group discovered that patients who received the stem cells and micro-fracture had statically significant improvement in their pain scores (36 vs. 30-point improvement), as well as improved MRI findings, with 65% of the patients in the stem cell group showing complete cartilage coverage vs. 45% in the non-stem cell group. Note that this study used cultured, fat-derived stem cells, and therefore results should be viewed with caution, particularly when being compared to bone marrow.
Dr. Lisa Fortier from Cornell, a veterinary physician, performed a series of studies evaluating the use of the same type of bone marrow we use for knees and its effect on horses. One interesting study of her’s evaluated using a simple injection of bone marrow concentrate versus performing the microfracture surgery in horses. Dr. Fortier and her team followed the horses with sequential MRI studies after one year, and discovered that the bone marrow group had improved findings in the area of the bone next to the injury, as well as the tissue textures.
Stem Cells Better than Most Surgeries for Knee Arthritis
Another commonly used treatment for arthritis is called a high tibial osteotomy, abbreviated HTO. This procedure corrects the bow of the knee joint and helps to restore it to natural alignment. During the procedure, the shin or femur bone is cut and moved over to correct the bow. Dr. Wong and his research team in Singapore evaluated the effects of cultured (grown) stem cells on improving the outcome of this surgery for osteoarthritic knees. Fifty-six patients were randomly assigned to receive stem cells and hyaluronic injection, while others were given the hyaluronic injection alone three weeks after their corrective bone procedure. Both groups were followed for over two years, with follow-up MRI’s performed at the one year mark. In the end, the patients who received the cultured stem cells had improved pain and function scores, as well as improved MRI findings. A follow up study conducted in Italy found similar positive results.
Researchers in Singapore performed another study evaluating if surgery is even necessary for cartilage defects of the knee. The very first cartilage cell procedure approved by the FDA was named Autologous Chondrocyte Implantation (ACI). Surgeons would harvest, or sample, some cartilage from a patient during the patient’s first surgery. This sample would then be sent to a company in Boston, where the team would culture and expand only the cartilage cells. Afterward, the cells would be shipped back to the surgeon; a second surgery would be performed upon which the patient’s knee is opened up and a pouch is made from the covering of the shin bone, then glued to create a small pouch where the cultured cells are injected.
This process would require two surgeries and prolonged sessions of physical therapy. Because of this, the researchers proposed they simply inject stem cells rather than requiring the patient to undergo two prolonged surgeries.
Seventy-two patients were placed into one of two test groups. The first group comprised of thirty-six patients, and all received the two stage ACI surgery. The second group consisted of thirty-six patients as well, and all received a single injection of bone marrow derived stem cells. Both groups of patients were then followed for two years. Both groups showed significant improvements in outcome; however, the two stage ACI surgery group did not show improvement if the patient was above the age of 45, while age made no difference for the stem cell injection group.
Researchers in Jabalpur, India were curious if they could improve the results of a very common surgery used to treat arthritic knees with mechanical symptoms such as meniscus tears (cartilage ring tears). Arthroscopy is a minimally invasive procedure using a mini fiber optic camera to look within the knee and treat common conditions such as a tear or loose pieces of cartilage. The researchers divided fifty patients into two groups. Group A received the standard arthroscopic procedure and group B received the arthroscopic procedure, but also received some bone marrow derived stem cells. The stem cell group B had improved quality of life as well as reduced pain.
What???? Stem Cells are Better than Knee Replacement!!!
Now, what about comparing stem cell therapy to one of our best-known treatments for arthritis of the knee - knee replacement surgery? Knee replacement surgery is a very reliable and durable method of relieving the pain and dysfunction of arthritis; in fact, the American Academy of Hip and Knee Surgeons (AAHKS) reports that over 90% of patients have relief of pain and over 80% of these patients have the same joint replacement in place over 20 years from the time of their surgery.
Although 90% of patients experience pain relief, this does not quantify the degree of the pain relief - for example, most patients may receive pain relief, but a portion of this 90% may only receive ten to twenty percent reduction of their pain, which is not satisfactory. Because of this, we must look at the whole group of joint replacement patients. When we look at this whole group, we find that twenty-seven to thirty percent of the patients are dissatisfied with this joint replacement. These findings were also discussed in a review article by researchers at Bristol University, UK.
Dr. Loniewski has personally replaced over 5,000 joints in his career, and can confirm that this is a good option for patients who have severe deformity of the knee. However, the knee replacement procedure does has some concerns. The first is the potential complication rates.
A review of over 160,000 patients through a national database by researchers from Rush University in Chicago found that the 30-day complication rate form both hip and knee replacement was 16%. Patients over the age of 70 or with histories of malnutrition, diabetes, cardiac disease, and smoking had higher risks.
Other than the higher complication rate, potential patients should consider the inconvenience of a joint replacement surgery. Although some joint replacements can be done in a minimally invasive manner and some patients can have this done as an outpatient, there is still the simple fact that the knee is maximally manipulated with the cutting of bone and the release of ligaments, as well as the implantation of foreign metal and plastic. For this reason, even with our modern minimally invasive techniques, patients still require 24/7 around-the-clock care for a minimum of two weeks; most require three weeks.
Following surgery, patients cannot drive their cars, shop, or enjoy a night out while the knee heals. They are recommended to attend physical therapy at least twice a week for a minimum of three weeks. You the patient cannot return to work (even sedentary types of work) for these same three weeks, and any moderate or high demand types of work (food service, factory) must be put on hold for up to three months. There is also the need for narcotic medications as well as medications to prevent blood clots.
Finally, these procedures normally only treat one knee at a time, meaning patients may have to repeat the treatment within the same year.
Phillipe Hernigou, MD from the University of Paris recognized the shortcomings of joint replacement as well as the benefits of bone marrow derived stem cell therapy and decided to compare the two treatments in some well-designed long term studies. He first looked at using this treatment for young patients who traditionally required joint replacement for a devastating type of arthritis of the knee called avascular necrosis - a condition where the blood supply to the bone around the knee is diminished, and the result is death of the bone and cartilage.
This condition normally occurs in younger patients during the third and fourth decades of life. The thought of replacing a knee in such a young group is concerning since most joint replacements have a limited life expectancy, while younger patients will likely have multiple joint surgeries in the future. His research team decided to evaluate the use of autologous bone marrow derived stem cell therapy injected into the diseased bone near the joint to treat this condition and compare it to traditional joint replacement in the same patient. Thirty patients with an average age of twenty-eight were randomized to receive a stem cell replacement to one knee and a joint replacement to the other knee.
The randomization process eliminated bias in selecting the less severe knee for one specific treatment. All the patients were followed for an amazing twelve years of average follow up. MRI’s were performed prior to the surgery and again at 24 months, five years, and at the last follow-up visit. X-rays were also reviewed and compared to the initial study. Samples of bone marrow were taken at specific sites in the arthritic knee as well as the pelvis where the bone marrow was harvested. The surgical procedure to replace the knee took an average 1.5 times longer than the entire stem cell procedure on the other knee.
After the surgery, patients reported a higher rate of blood clots on the side which received the knee replacement (15% vs. 0%). At the last follow up, six of the thirty knees (20%) with the knee replacement required another surgery, while only three of the stem cell knees (10%) required a knee replacement - but at longer periods out of six, eight and twelve years from the stem cell procedure. The patients recorded their satisfaction with each knee.
The knee replacement group showed eight of thirty (26%) reporting excellent pain relief, and the stem cell side reported four of thirty (13.3%); but there were a much higher number of patients in the poor pain relief after the knee replacement, with four out of thirty (13.3%) and only one out of thirty (3%) from the stem cell side. Most importantly, however, is that when patients were asked to point to the knee they preferred more, 70% of patients pointed to the stem cell side!
When Dr. Hernigou evaluated the sequential MRIs of the stem cell treated knee, he found that there was an increase in cartilage volume as well as a significant decrease in the size of the bone marrow lesion (BML), which is an area of inflamed bone and a cause of pain. Even when some of the stem cell knees required a joint replacement, sampling of the bone and cartilage revealed that the patients who had a poor response still had an average 45% increase in bone mass and required a less invasive type of knee replacement than the other side. In addition, none of the stem cell knees that required a knee replacement required further surgeries.
Dr. Hernigou’s team also looked at treating the very elderly with the same treatment. This study comprised of sixty elderly male patients all 85 years old or older. Group A was treated with the standard total knee replacement for both knees., while Group B was treated with the bone marrow stem cells to both knees injected directly into the bony part of the knee next to the joint. Group C had one knee injected with the stem cells, and the other knee replaced. After an average of six years (ranging from two to fifteen years), the patients in Group B (stem cell group) showed the following:
- Improved knee function scores (Knee Society Scores). There was a 16.3-point improvement for the stem cell group versus only an 8.9-point improvement for total knee group.
- Faster functional recovery- At 9 months, the stem cell group had faster recovery than the total knee group.
- Lower complication rates. Blood clots occurred in only 2% of the stem cell group compared to 12% in the knee replacement group. None of the stem cell patients required a blood transfusion, and 29.3% of the total knee group required blood transfusions.
- Higher use of analgesic medications such as narcotics were used in the total knee group.
- Lower re-operation rate. Only one of the stem cell patients required further surgery or conversion to a total knee. However, 5% of the total knee patients required further surgery.
- Higher overall satisfaction. In Group C, when patients were asked to point to the knee which they preferred, 70% of the patients pointed to the stem cell therapy knee.
It is very interesting that Dr. Hernigou has been able to demonstrate that cell based treatments help the two most vulnerable populations affected by arthritis of the knee. Both the very young and the very old may benefit from this treatment with superior safety, efficiency and patient satisfaction.
Here is what we learned today: Stem Cell Therapy for Knees Have Proof that they have superior results to:
- Hyaluronic Injections (chicken fat)
- Autologous Cellular Implantation (cartilage cell implant)
- Corrective surgery (High Tibial Osteotomy)
- Total Knee Replacement
- Not only is this therapy superior in results to the most commonly used treatments, it is safer and less expensive.
If you would like a face to face consultation with Dr. Loniewski to discuss your knee pain and the options available, please call 810-299-8552 for an appointment.
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