In the run-up to the 2012 London Olympic Games, Cayman Olympic runner Cydonia Mothersill was trying to overcome an injury to her Achilles tendon in her ankle. When the usual physical therapy and other treatments did not work, she turned to the newly opened Regenexx Cayman clinic.
Doctors took stem cells from Ms. Mothersill’s hip and injected them, along with her own blood cells, into her ankle.
“This was my last shot to compete at the London Olympic Games,” she told attendees at last week’s Cayman Islands Healthcare Conference on new trends and technology in treating patients.
Ultimately, Ms. Mothersill said, she got the stem cell treatment too late to repair her ankle to compete in the Olympic track and field events. “This procedure gave my life back to me,” she said. She has since retired from competition, but says her injury has recovered enough that she can now run and play with her two daughters.
“It seems a bit crazy, it seems futuristic, but it worked,” she said.
Dr. Jamil Bashir, a Colorado-based doctor with Regenexx Cayman, explained the procedure and how stem cells are changing orthopedic treatments at the conference last week. The method involves harvesting the bone-specific stem cells from the hip. There are three types, and the network of clinics he works with focus on stem cells associated with bone, muscle, tendons and similar tissues. The treatment combines the patient’s own stem cells and blood platelets and puts the cells directly on the injury.
“We use the body’s own capacity to heal itself,” he said. “They come from you and go back into you.”
Dr. Bashir said the bone is a factory, producing blood and stem cells. These are the cells that the body uses for healing everything from a paper cut to broken bones. The technique Regenexx uses concentrates those healing cells and puts them directly on the injury.
These aren’t the embryonic stem cells that have caused so much controversy, but adult stem cells people produce in their own bodies every day.
The stem cell treatment works well, Dr. Bashir said, for partial tendon and ligament tears like torn rotator cuffs or Ms. Mothersill’s Achilles tendon. He said it also help heal degenerative conditions like arthritis. Some patients, the doctor said, can use the treatments instead of hip or knee replacements, with the stems cells rebuilding the tissue in joints that have worn away.
The treatment does not work well, the doctor said, when a tendon has torn all the way through or arthritis has progressed too far and there is not enough tissue left to repair the hip or knee.
In the Cayman Islands, Dr. Bashir said, the company can use techniques not permitted in the United States. In Cayman, Regenexx will take a patient’s cells and multiply them in the lab by 100 to 1,000 times, giving the doctors more cells to work with in the treatments. He said the company cannot multiply the cells in its U.S. clinics because of a combination of politics and business interests.
The company’s Cayman operation also offers “cryopreservation,” meaning that once doctors harvest and multiply the stem cells they can keep them frozen in case the patient needs them again.
Most of the patients Dr. Bashir treats in Colorado have spine injuries like a herniated disk. He said it’s important to treat the entire body and identify the different injuries that can lead to, for example, a slipped disk.
Back problems can lead to arthritis in the spine, which can then lead to a knee injury and the arches falling in a patient’s foot. “Everything is connected,” Dr. Bashir said, and he works to treat all of the connected injuries.
The technology keeps advancing, he said. “Every day, what we were doing yesterday is outdated,” Dr. Bashir said. He pointed to a recent presentation he saw where scientists put stem cells in a 3D printer and produced whole ligaments. “This is the future 20 or 30 years from now,” he said.