Local doctors testing stem cell treatments to save patients from surgery

- Can knee replacements soon be a surgery of the past? Some local doctors are working to save patients - from going under the knife.

But it's not yet approved in the U.S.

The FDA just sanctioned a series of studies at the Rothman Institute at Jefferson to see how effective the therapy is.

FOX 29's Joyce Evans delved into it all.

Carter Hanin is considered unstoppable by his doctors, as he strolled into the Rothman Institute at Jefferson to see his surgeon again.

He's a skateboarder, surfer, a boogie boarder, snow boarder, skier, and all around fearless guy. He has been for about 30 years.

Orthopedic sports surgeon Bradford Tucker says a lot of Carter.

"Ready for this, in his backyard he has a half pipe that him and his son skateboard on," Dr. Tucker explained.

As you may have guessed, Carter gets hurt a lot.

"I deal with a lot of pain I have two torn rotator cuffs," Carter explained.

He refuses to get surgery for that yet, but his knees are a different story. 

"I did a lot of cartilage damage at the time," Carter said. .

Now in his 40's Carter has a screw, a lot of scars, a list of procedures and painful arthritis to show for it.

"He has narrowing of his joint spaces. It would be like him going to a mechanic and him saying that your brake pads are wearing out," Dr. Tucker explained, "And we know this knee here actually has a piece of cartilage fully missing on the lateral side."

Carter uses ice and a brace daily, and then goes into get draining, and injections repeatedly. That wasn't working.

"Sometimes it works for a little while, but we've exhausted conservative options with Carter," Dr. Tucker said.

A knee replacement is not an option, as Carter says he's too young for that. He's not even open to a cartilage transplant, saying that's too much down time for a dare devil and active dad. 

"I was like an old man, walking hunched over for two months," Carter said of his previous procedure.

Safe to say he had become Dr. Brad Tucker's and other Rothman Surgeon's biggest dilemma.

Lucky for Carter, the FDA just approved some studies at Jefferson University Hospital, using stem cells to repair or regenerate joint injuries, they're looking at treatments using the patient's own adult stem cells.

"It's the first FDA approved study in the United States," Dr. Tucker explained.

At the same time  federal regulators are cracking down on some stem cell treatments and clinics around the country, in the continuing debate over whether most of these 'alternative' therapies really work, are worth the thousands of dollars in out-of-pocket costs,  or if they're even safe.

A number of big named athletes reportedly travel overseas to get stem cell treatments for their joint injuries.

"But, you can't manipulate stem cells in the United States, so we have a technique where we can take, right now we can take your fat, extract the stem cells and within an hour have a concentrated stem cell population that we can inject in injured parts of the body," Dr. Tucker said.

Turns out Carter's longtime surgeon is the director of the cartilage restoration center at Rothman, known for their work and research in the field, including serious back and spinal injuries.

"It's such a wonderful gift and we may have the answer with stem cells at this time," Dr. Alex Vaccaro explained.

FOX 29's Joyce Evans caught up with Dr. Alex Vaccaro as he came out of another conventional back surgery, one he hopes stem cell repair of the spine may repair one day

"So we're going through safety trials now to make sure it's safe for the human condition," Dr. Vaccaro said.

The joint cartilage studies are farther along.

"Right now we're doing a study where we're injecting it into knees," Dr. Tucker said, "It's been deemed safe and the preliminary data has been very good and now we're doing a study to see if it actually works."

Luckily, he had the perfect, first pre-trial subject.

"Well what do I have to lose? I'm not taking anybody else's cells, they're my own so I was all in favor," Carter explained.

And it's all free, but finding fat to liposuction from Carter was not easy or painless.

Dr. Tucker says trial patients will still be awake but numbed.

"These are all ways to restore and prevent young people from having their knees replaced," Dr. Tucker explained.  

After two months of healing, Carter's doctors say they didn't know what improvement to expect out this patient. Dr. Tucker says he was skeptical, until he saw Carter gliding instead of limping.

"Not waking up in all this pain or not every day coming home to ice my knee," Carter said.

He'll still be monitored to see if it lasts.

"He is the perfect candidate because he's going to test it. He's not going to stop," Dr. Tucker explained.

Dr. Tucker and team are still looking for plenty more study subjects to treat and follow.

There's no age limit, but you have to qualify.

For more information on the study visit their website, or call 1 800 321-9999. 


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