Cellular therapy

Modern cellular therapy (previously called stem cell therapy) uses a patient’s own cells to help in the process of healing. These cells, called progenitor cells, can turn into different tissues (typically cartilage or bone tissue), but they don’t meet the full definition of a stem cell.

UCHealth physicians are on the front lines of cellular therapy

UCHealth physicians have been on the front line of researching and developing cellular therapy treatment techniques, and they have advanced these promising new treatments at our facilities.

Our partnership with the University of Colorado School of Medicine ensures that our clinicians can leverage the many resources of an academic medical center.

Benefits of the UCHealth network

Being a part of the UCHealth network allows us to start with our own lab research and bring it to life with our own clinical trials.

We have the science to back up our novel techniques.

In cellular therapy, progenitor cells are used to help in the process of healing. These cells are harvested from two places: fat tissue (“adipose tissue”), which contains a high number of progenitor cells, and bone marrow. Bone marrow is very easy to harvest cells from, but contains a smaller number of these progenitor cells.

Progenitor cells secrete growth factors and other chemical messaging (called exosomes) to help modulate the local environment. They can change the body’s local response to inflammation, change the local immune response and decrease pain by stimulating anti-pain receptors.

The types of cellular therapy are based on the tissue where the progenitor cells come from: fat tissue (adipose-derived cellular therapy), or bone marrow (bone marrow aspirate concentrate [BMA-C]), as well as whether the cells are taken from your own body (autologous) or from another person’s body (allograft).

Autologous treatments

  • Adipose-derived cellular therapy, or fat tissue-derived cellular therapy, takes progenitor cells from the abdomen (front or flank), thigh or knee using minimally-invasive surgery techniques that can be done in a clinic or in an operating room.
  • BMA-C, or bone marrow aspirate-concentrate, takes bone marrow from the iliac crest (the bone you can feel at the hip area) and concentrates progenitor cells from that marrow. This procedure can also be done in a clinic or in an operating room.

When a patient comes in to one of our clinics, they receive a shot of local anesthetic, and wait a few minutes for numbness at the injection site to occur. If the procedure takes place in an operating room, the patient is put under anesthesia. Tissue is then harvested from the body, and progenitor cells are derived from that tissue. These cells are placed back into the patient’s body at the injury site during that same visit.

Harvested cells are never taken to a lab or “grown” elsewhere – they remain at the patient’s bedside, per FDA regulation.

Allograft therapy

Allograft therapy, where cells are taken from another patient’s body, may be the next generation of cellular therapy. Under FDA guidance, UCHealth will soon be one of the first sites to offer trials of these transplanted cells. Allograft therapy aims to benefit people who are older, lower-weight or have been through chemotherapy—all of whom have conditions that would give them a lower count of progenitor cells that could be used for their own therapy.

UCHealth is also researching birth-product therapy—where tissue is harvested from the amnion (the membrane that surrounds an embryo) and umbilical cord after delivery. There is little evidence that the amniotic fluid and tissues have enough progenitor cells to be effective for cellular therapy, but there may be significant amounts of growth factors present in this tissue. We do offer a single type of amniotic product that has shown efficacy in clinical trials.

How much does it cost for cellular therapy treatment?

Modern cellular therapy across the UCHealth system is $5,000 per treatment. This has been standardized no matter the type of treatment or where it takes place.

How long do cellular therapy injections last?

There is not enough data to prove how long cellular therapy lasts. Patients that undergo cellular treatments often experience decreased pain and inflammation. For some, one treatment may only be necessary to decrease their symptoms; for others, it may last six weeks. The variability from one individual to another and the understanding of the driving force behind the patient’s symptoms of inflammation and pain make it difficult to quantify an answer.

What diseases or injuries can be treated with cellular therapy?

Cellular therapy can treat symptoms of osteoarthritis, inflammation and other orthopedic conditions causing pain.

Is cellular therapy covered by health insurance?

No.

What are the negative effects of cellular therapy?

There are no known negative effects of autologous cellular therapy besides pain from where the tissue is harvested, a one percent chance of infection and of local bruising. Since we are using your body’s own tissue, the implanted cells are not rejected. There is also a chance that the procedure won’t work for the intended result (you might still have pain).

When implanting cells from another human (allograft therapy), there is a potential downside of rejection, but the percentage chance of this happening is not known. There is also a chance that the procedure won’t work for the intended result (you might still have pain).

With birth products, there is a chance of transmitting an infection, an immune reaction to the transplanted tissue, as well as pain and inflammation. The recipient’s body may attack the transplanted tissue because they are foreign. This is why we encourage the use of the patient’s own cells, rather than using tissue from others.

Can cellular therapy help arthritis?

Maybe. A study from Korea shows that there has been actual production of cartilage in patients who have severe arthritis. Many studies show that cellular therapy decreases their arthritis symptoms. We are performing clinical trials here at UCHealth now to help understand the true answer to this question.

What can patients who suffer from arthritis expect from cellular therapy?

If you have pain from arthritis, there is a significant chance that your pain will decrease, as well as a chance that your inflammation will decrease too.

Can it heal your cartilage?

There’s not yet enough evidence that cellular therapy can regrow or routinely thicken cartilage.