Vail doctor leading the way in adult stem cell therapy
A Vail doctor is in the midst of employing cutting edge medical technology that could bring an end to invasive reconstructive surgery for people with joint and cartilage injuries.
Dr. Scott Brandt, M.D., medical director of ThriveMD in Edwards, has a background in anesthesiology and specializes in regenerative and restorative medicine. He is one of a handful of doctors in the country who recently began employing the natural regenerative benefits of stem cells as an alternative to highly invasive joint replacement surgeries for patients with acute and chronic pain in their knees, shoulders, wrists, ankles, hands, feet, hips, elbows and certain spinal conditions.
In addition, because stem cells can take the form of bone, cartilage, ligament, tendons, muscle or fat, they also can be used to treat debilitating conditions, such as degenerative arthritis, rheumatoid arthritis or osteoarthritis.
Trained at the University of Illinois and Michael Reese hospitals in Chicago, Brandt first began practicing in Denver. Although he moved to Vail eight years ago, he waited until last September to move his practice and open ThriveMD.
“I’ve been specializing in bioidentical therapy in some form (since 1997), but I didn’t think this procedure was quite ready for prime time until about a year and a half ago,” Brandt said. “It’s the perfect procedure for the location because we have a lot of aging baby boomers who moved here because of all of the activities Colorado offers and they want to remain active.”
Although stem cells may conjure strong opinions in the minds of many people, Brandt said his practice is a far cry from the embryonic stem cell debate of the George W. Bush years.
Instead of growing human embryos, Brandt uses a Food and Drug Administration-approved technique trademarked in the U.S. as Tickle Lipo (liposuction) to harvest adult stem cells from fat.
Doctors have known about stem cells since about the 1950s, Brandt said, but they weren’t discovered in adults until six years ago. They were first found in the bone marrow of adolescents and since that time they’ve been used as a treatment for cancer, particularly leukemia.
But stem cell numbers are few in bone marrow and can’t be practically applied to regenerative procedures without cell expansion, a practice currently prohibited by the FDA. In other words, if stem cells are to be harvested from a person for medical purposes, they must be replanted in that person the same day, Brandt said.
Fortunately, further studies revealed about five years ago that adults have a healthy reserve of stem cells in fat tissue. Not only do stem cells occur naturally in human fat reserves, they also can be harvested in far greater numbers.
A sample of fat tissue has about 1,000 to 2,500 more stem cells than a similar sample of bone marrow, Brandt said, and a one-hour liposuction procedure can yield anywhere between 100 million and 200 million stem cells, eliminating the need for banned cell expansion and allowing regenerative procedures to be completed in just a few hours.
The procedure at ThriveMD requires one hour to harvest the stem cells and another hour and a half to separate the stem cells from fat tissue in the lab. The cells are then injected into the problem area with the help of a real time x-ray, a practice that differentiates Brandt from other doctors in the country.
“Damaged joints are a lot like damaged plumbing; you can’t just throw stuff at it and expect the problem to fix itself,” Brandt said. “Stem cells are going to flow away from areas of highest resistance, which is typically where the most damage is. That’s why defining where you are going to place the cells is just as important as harvesting them.”
Using adult stem cells to eliminate the need for invasive reconstructive surgery may sound too good to be true and right now it is, Brandt said. Although he thinks doctors are on the brink of perfecting one of the most innovative medical discoveries in recent memory, Brandt said there are certain drawbacks.
Because the science is in its infancy, doctors can only draw from short-term studies. So far Brandt and his colleagues around the nation have not achieved the success rate they want, but the procedure is still far from a flop. On average, 75 percent of patients experience a 75 percent reduction in their pain, Brandt said.
The procedure is so new that it also isn’t yet covered by insurance, and it isn’t cheap. A typical procedure requires two visits to ThriveMD and costs $8,500 per joint. A second joint costs $2,500 if the procedures are done at the same time.
“Insurance companies aren’t in the business of covering things that haven’t been proven and we don’t have 10 years of science to draw from yet,” Brandt said. “We have great anecdotal evidence and good short-term evidence, but the procedure still needs to be defined.
“I think it will be covered by insurance some day because of its potential to keep joints healthy. I truly believe this will be the antibiotic of our generation.”
For more information about stem cell therapy, visit http://www.thrivemdvail.com.
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