No More Knife: The Stem-Cell Shortcut To Injury Recovery
Used to be, you blew a knee and your options back to action were few—and long. But a fast-growing field of stem-cell therapy is ushering in a new, and much speedier, era of orthopedic recovery.
Stephan Drake was halfway down a backcountry ski run in Alaska last March, filming with Sweetgrass Productions and Patagonia, when he aired over a steep spine onto an unexpected wind crust. The snow grabbed his right ski and Drake felt the unmistakable snap! of his knee ripping apart as he rolled down the slope like a starfish. Having torn his anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments in 2009, the 37-year-old pro skier and DPS Skis founder knew exactly what the snapping sensation meant. Season over. And: time to make a decision. Surgery or no surgery?
Twenty years ago, the idea of repairing a ruptured ACL without surgery would not have been rational. Within the past decade, however, a growing number of patients have opted for stem-cell injections to heal the native ligament over surgical reconstruction that uses various non-native tissues to replace it. When Drake returned from Alaska, he learned he had not only suffered a Grade 3 tear of the ACL, which provides 80 percent of the knee's stability, but also had torn his medial and lateral meniscus and chipped a piece of bone off his femoral head. After months of research, Drake decided to try stem-cell injections in a unique treatment called Regenexx at the Centeno-Schultz Clinic near Boulder, Colorado. Early one morning in August, he went in for the first of two visits that day. Dr. John Schultz drove a needle into Drake's hip and extracted a syringeful of stem-cell-rich bone marrow. Drake then left the clinic and drove to a coffee shop to eat breakfast. He returned about noon, after Schultz had finished concentrating the stem cells. Schultz then used a tiny camera and a needle to inject the cells precisely where he wanted in Drake's knee—where the ligaments had torn. Drake walked out of the clinic at 1 p.m. Stem cells have been used in Europe to treat bone disease since the early 1990s, but same-day procedures like the one performed on Drake were first approved in the U.S. in 1999.