Stem cells may be the key to overcoming age-related disorders and genetic diseases, but did you know that they can help young and healthy people as well? Even in our peak of life, we sometimes need healing. Perhaps it’s a torn ligament, a rotator cuff injury, worn cartilage, or tennis elbow. Whatever the case, an activity-related injury can keep us out of the game for a long time; however, new therapies using stem cells could shorten that recovery.
Repairing and healing with umbilical cord blood
The umbilical cord is one of the richest sources of stem cells. On top of that, it can be easily obtained without the need for any invasive procedures and can be stored long-term for future use. Today, people use umbilical cord-derived stem cells for a wide range
of conditions and health-related purposes.
What are umbilical cord Stem Cells?
Typically, after a healthy birth, clinical staff discard the no-longer-needed umbilical cord as medical waste. However, parents have had the option for over 20 years to save the stem cells from inside their child’s umbilical cord and store it in a private or public cord blood bank. This tissue contains a large number of stem cells from the baby, as well as high amounts of growth factors. 1 Before being stored, every cord specimen is tested to make sure it does not contain any harmful pathogens or contaminants.
How does stem cell therapy fromumbilical cords work?
Stem cells are ideal for healing for several reasons. They can turn into multiple other types of cells and can grow and divide indefinitely. In the right conditions, they can replace cells in the body that have been lost, due to either disease, injury, or the effects of aging. The growth factors expressed by stem cells from the umbilical cord can also stimulate the stem cells to migrate into a damaged area and repopulate it quickly.
Anyone can be treated because the cells are immune system privileged. Trained clinicians inject a small vial of cord cells into the specific part of the patient’s body that is being targeted, such as an area that is injured, painful, or inflamed. They may use ultrasound to guide the injection into exactly the right spot. In the days and weeks following, the stem cells and growth factors facilitate tissue renewal and repair near the injection site.
Stem cells in sports medicine
Stem cell therapy is becoming more commonplace among orthopedic and sports medicine clinics, especially as a non-surgical alternative to injury repairs. Sometimes patients us it in combination with surgery, physical therapy, or other treatments.1 Though still an emerging field, clinical trials show great promise for stem cell use for activity-related injuries and conditions.
High-impact sports frequently result in long-term cartilage degradation, causing pain and stiffness in affected joints. Cartilage damage often happens in the knees, hips, or lower back due to repeated strain or overuse. Sometimes, an accident may cause an acute injury such as a tear in the cartilage.
Cartilage restoration and repair is one of the most common uses for umbilical cord blood today. Mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs) from cord blood can convert into chondrocytes, the type of cells that produces and maintains cartilage. Stimulated by the right kinds of growth factors, these chondrocytes can build the protein matrix that keeps your joints strong, flexible, and cushioned.
Recent clinical trials have demonstrated that MSCs can promote cartilage healing in major weight-bearing joints like the knees, especially when transplanted with a scaffold of structural molecules.
MSC transplantations can also reduce recovery time after joint surgery. 2 In a few case reports published to date, patients were still enjoying the positive outcomes of their stem cell procedures when re-examined as long as five years afterwards. 3
Tendons and ligaments
Tendons and ligaments attach bones to muscles or other bones, respectively. They sometimes tear or become detached when a joint gets twisted or pulled. A rotator cuff injury is an example of this, where the tendons that stabilize the shoulder joint tear or detach. Like cartilage, tendons and ligaments contain a lot of structural proteins, and tend to heal slowly due to their complexity and low blood supply.
MSCs can also convert into fibroblasts, the structural cells that make up connective tissues like tendons and ligaments. Only a few small clinical trials have been done on stem cell therapy for uses like rotator cuff repair, Achilles tendon repair, or patellar (kneecap) reconstruction. However, in those, the stem cells did not cause any major side effects, and they supported timely healing.
Other potential uses
Muscle tears or bone fractures are other potential targets for stem cell therapy. So far, the research showing the effectiveness of umbilical cord blood for these types of injuries have mostly only been done in animals. However, these turned up promising results, and clinical trials with human volunteers are now underway.
- McIntyre JA, Jones IA, Danilkovich A, Vangsness CT, Jr. The Placenta: Applications in Orthopaedic Sports Medicine. The American journal of sports medicine. 2018;46(1):234-247.
- Yoshiya S, Dhawan A. Cartilage repair techniques in the knee: stem cell therapies. Curr Rev Musculoskelet Med. 2015;8(4):457-466.
- Park Y-B, Ha C-W, Lee C-H, Park Y-G. Restoration of a large osteochondral defect of the knee using a composite of umbilical cord blood-derived mesenchymal stem cells and hyaluronic acid hydrogel: a case report with a 5-year follow-up. BMC Musculoskelet Disord. 2017;18(1):59-59.