Read the Star News story of how one of our patients, at the time a 70-year-old Southport resident, was successfully treated using the same stem cell therapy we still use today.
Eight years ago, the rotator cuff on Tom Novak’s left shoulder tore.
After surgery to repair the injury and the biceps tendonitis that came with the tear, Novak underwent six months of physical therapy to regain proper motion.
Then this year, the same thing happened again – this time to his right shoulder.
“It was probably a combination of wear and tear and throwing around 50 pound bags,” the 70-year-old Southport resident said, recalling the sharp, shooting pain that ripped though his arm one afternoon in June when he was working around the house.
But this time around after the surgery, Novak the recovery was noticeably different.
Within days he no longer had to take pain medication, and in a few weeks he regained the same range of motion it took months of physical therapy to achieve last time.
“Eight years ago, they were doing things differently,” Novak said.
This time, Novak’s orthopedic surgeon Austin Yeargan tried a new approach.
Yeargan harvested adult stem cells from bone marrow that came from Novak’s hip and used them to help repair his rotator cuff, combining it with a process to bathe the surgical site with platelet-rich plasma to jump-start growth factors.
“What I’m most excited about is using it for rotator cuff procedures. There are 15 percent of people who still do not do well after the surgery,” said Yeargan, who is based in Southport but operates in Brunswick County and Wilmington. “What I’m hoping is it helps to heal in cases when it’s older adults who don’t have the best tissue in the world.
“I’m going to start using it too for the bad fractures where the bone is very poor.”
Because adult stem cells do not have a specific structure or function, they are showing promise in a range of different types of surgeries to aid the healing process.
“The stem cells, they’re the most important thing because they’re not differentiated. They can really do anything,” Yeargan said.
Sidestepping the controversial issue of embryonic stem cell use, researchers have looked at new ways to use stem cells taken directly from the patient.
Yeargan pointed out that there needs to be more studies published using controlled groups to back up the procedure.
“Anecdotally, I have noticed a far quicker recovery and less pain,” he said.
Philip Hardison, president and CEO of the Wilmington-based Synergistic Technologies company that distributes the equipment for the process and has been marketing it to area surgeons, said the approach also has been used locally for spine fusions to grow bone after spine surgery.
He pointed to other areas of the country where the patient’s adult stem cells have been used to treat chronic wounds that won’t heal and for peripheral artery disease.
Last year, researchers in Ohio published the outcome of a clinical trial during which six of nine patients with severe peripheral artery disease who received adult stem cell transplants avoided major amputation. The stem cells helped grow new blood vessels to bypass damaged ones.
Blood vessels, however, are not the only thing adult stem cells could be used for as the building blocks for new growth.
“If you put them (the adult stem cells) in the knee, where you typically have bone on bone, it will regrow the cartilage, which will prevent someone from having a total knee (replacement) surgery or at least buy them some time,” Hardison said. “Right now, we’ve been using it in orthopedic and spine surgeries, but the next level is with some of the trauma surgeons and to avoid amputations.”