Understanding Regenerative Medicine: A Complete Guide

Updated on August 27, 2019

Regenerative medicine is a hot topic in both the research and medical ethics community. But it’s hardly a new subject. Scientists and physicians started practicing the subject in the early twentieth century, and some of the same principles used then are still embraced today.

The purpose of regenerative medicine is to repair and replace tissues that suffer from disease or defects. By replacing them with organic tissues, the patients’ prognosis not only improves but they have the potential to go on to live a normal, healthy life.

Are you curious about the potential of regenerative medicine? Keep reading for our introductory guide to the field.

What is Regenerative Medicine?

Regenerative medicine aims to repair or replace your diseased, defective or dead tissue with living, functional tissue.

Although it is a largely new and rapidly developing field of study, you likely already know about some of the biggest successes in regenerative medicine. Transplant medicine is a type of regenerative medicine, and it has come a long way since the first soft tissue and corneal transplants that took place in 1905.

However, the ideas underlying regenerative medicine goes back even further. The Greek myth of Prometheus represents the first written understanding of the potential of the human body to regenerate itself.

When Prometheus was chained to a rock to suffer his punishment, his liver was eaten by an eagle each day and then it regrew overnight only to be eaten again. 

Despite the advances that now allow for successful heart and double-lung transplants, regenerative medicine continues to face significant challenges.

As our population continues to age rapidly, the number of available tissues hasn’t kept up with the need. Indeed, in 2018, there were 36,000 transplants in the United States, which broke the record for the sixth consecutive year. At the same time, 18 patients die every day while waiting for a transplant.

More than 6,500 candidates died in 2017 while on the waiting list.

And those figures also take into consideration that there were more living and deceased donors than in any year prior.

What’s Happening in Regenerative Medicine Today?

Because there are not enough donors to keep up with demand, researchers are now working on replacement tissues.

The initial forays into engineered tissues included skin replacements and a tissue-engineered bladder. Experts take a patient’s own cells and grow them outside their body to generate the tissue replacements they need.

Another type of replacement uses pigs’ small intestines as a base. Physicians use the material to reconstruct ligaments and deal with skin issues like chronic pressure ulcers, deep skin lacerations, second-degree burns, and more.

Perhaps the most promising work for tissue repair and replacement is with stem cells.

How Stem Cells Could Save the World

Stem cells and cell therapies show great promise in their ability to tackle chronic and devastating health problems by using the body’s own cells to heal.

Some of the applications of stem cell research include:

  • Type 1 diabetes
  • Cardiovascular repair
  • Brain injury 
  • Central nervous system issues

The joy of stem cells is that they come from the recipient’s own body.

One of the issues that continue to plague even the most advanced transplants is transplant rejection. Despite extensive testing and treatment, a percentage of rejections occur either within the first few months (acute rejection) or over years (chronic rejection).

As recently as 2010, 25 percent of kidneys and 40 percent of hearts were rejected within the first year after the transplant.

When the transplant comes from the patient’s cells, they are far less likely to experience rejection.

Stem cells are also a controversial type subject in the field of regenerative medicine. While cord blood stems cells are the most common type of stem cells use, embryonic stem cells have become the public face of the research and draw the ire of politicians, social critics, and factions within the medical community itself.

Embryonic stem cells come from the inner mass cells of an undeveloped human embryo. Their benefit is that they are able to become any type of cell in the body whereas cord blood (or adult) stem cells are limited to the tissue of origin.

Regenerative Medicine for Pain Management

One of the most promising areas of regenerative medicine, including stem cell therapy, is its potential to help treat chronic pain. Like the field overall, the idea traces back thousands of years. The Roman army used hot needles to treat dislocated joints among its soldiers.

Approximately 20 percent of adults in the United States experience chronic pain and eight percent experience high-impact chronic pain, which limits the activities they enjoy in their day-to-day life. In a time where opioids are now known to be dangerous for widespread use, finding a new, safer way to treat chronic pain is essential. 

At present, physicians use regenerative agents like stem cells to treat pain caused by osteoarthritis, intervertebral disc disruption and low back pain, and tendinopathy. Over the past few years, several cell-based therapies have emerged for pain management. These can be prescribed and administered in the doctor’s office via injections.

In most clinics, physicians use stems cells extracted from the bone marrow and tissue from the patient’s own hip. The physician injects stem cells into the discs that have experienced degeneration. The stem cells then work to close the tears and rebuild the discs.

Reviews of multiple clinical trials show that they have the potential to be effective in pain management. Though, there are still variable levels of evidence.

Who is a Candidate?

Stem cell injections aren’t for everyone. At present they work best for patients who experience:

  • Partially torn tendons
  • Damaged muscle and tendons tissues
  • Chronic tendonitis
  • Moderate osteoarthritis

There’s no upper or lower age limit. Both young athletes and the elderly can benefit equally if their disease or injury is conducive to injections.

Health also plays a role in your candidacy for regenerative medicine for pain management. Patients with these conditions are usually not a good fit:

  • Leukemia
  • Lymphoma
  • Active infections
  • Bloodborne diseases
  • Multiple chronic medical issues (diabetes, hypothyroidism, etc.)

Your physician or a pain management specialist can tell you whether you could benefit from regenerative medicine and you can find more info here.

Regenerative Medicine Bridges Together the Old and New

Regenerative medicine is an old idea that offers the promise of renewal for those who deal with diseased and defective tissues.

Although it has been in use for over a hundred years, we are just beginning to experience the real potential benefits of using tissue and stem cells to heal.

Are you looking for more health care news? Be sure to check out our education section.

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