Doctors might soon be able to regrow injured muscles, tendons and bones without invasive surgery, simply by injecting a person's own stem cells into the site of an injury. Veterinarians are already doing it with injured horses, and research into human applications is well under way.
The National Institutes for Health seem to think regenerating human muscle and bone using a person's own adult stem cells is nearly ready for prime time. Last week, the NIH announced to its staff that it's creating a bone marrow-stem cell transplant center within the National Institute for Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases.
Researchers at the NIH labs in Bethesda, Maryland, are already growing human muscle, cartilage and spinal disks in vitro. The tissue isn't mechanically sound yet, says lead researcher Rocky Tuan, but that will come with further work.
"I have a piece of tissue that looks like a spinal disc, a sand bag, tough as nails on the outside and like sand on the inside," says Tuan, a Ph.D. and the senior investigator in the Cartilage and Orthopedics branch of the NIAMS. "The mechanical properties are lousy, but it's a beginning."
While the use of stem cells harvested from human embryos has been getting the most media attention, scientists and doctors have also been working with adult stem cells that also have the ability to become one with their environment and to replicate as cells of their adopted tissue. Using adult stem cells - grown inside the body or in the lab - has become accepted in the veterinary community, and horses have benefited greatly. Researchers are working to bring those same benefits to humans, but there are still hurdles left to clear.
The NIH project comes in part from what veterinarians have learned from injecting adult stem cells into valuable horses who've suffered injuries. In many cases, those horses' careers were saved when the stem cells regrew damaged tendons and ligaments.
Rodrigo Vazquez, a Southern California veterinarian, has been using adult stem cells to regrow damaged muscles in horses for several years. It's a fairly common procedure in the veterinary arena, and the results are impressive: One of Vazquez's patients is participating in this year's Olympics Dressage events; another is a prize-winning jumper.
The procedure is simple and straightforward. Inside a surgical suite at his equine hospital, Vazquez removes blood full of adult stem cells from the sternum of the anesthetized horse.
Then he rolls his stool to the other end of the horse, where ultrasound data has helped guide needles into the exact areas on the rear leg where the beautiful horse's ligaments are torn. He injects the stem cells into those spots.
"A few years ago, these injuries were career-ending," Vazquez says. Not any more. "In a month, the torn tissue will be completely regrown and healed."
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