New Spinal Discs Grown from Stem Cells

By Steve Weakley

Scientists have moved a step closer to being able to replace degenerated spinal discs with new ones grown in a laboratory from a patient’s own stem cells.

Spinal discs are soft tissues that cushion the vertebrae and enable our backs to conform and perform the tasks of everyday movement. Over time, the discs can wear out and cause the bones of the spine to rub together and pinch nerves. This disc degeneration is one of the leading causes of back pain.

University of Pennsylvania researchers reported in the journal Science Translational Medicine that they have successfully grown and implanted replacement discs made from the stem cells of goats. The cells were grown in a laboratory in a disc shaped form and then implanted into the necks of goats.

After 8 weeks, MRI’s showed that the replacement discs functioned just as well or better than the goats’ original cervical discs. The implanted discs were left in for 20 weeks and became part of the animals’ own tissue.

Researchers told Medical News Today that this was a major step forward from previous experiments in which they implanted discs into rat tails. Goat discs are more comparable to humans in size, structure and function.

"I think it's really exciting that we have come this far, from the rat tail all the way up to human-sized implants," said co-senior author Harvey Smith, MD, a professor of Orthopaedic Surgery at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania.  

"Using a true tissue-engineered motion-preserving replacement device is not something we have yet done in orthopaedics. I think it would be a paradigm shift for how we really treat these spinal diseases and how we approach motion sparing reconstruction of joints.”


Current treatments for degenerative discs include spinal fusion or artificial implants.  Both have limited benefits and usually cannot restore full functionality. Artificial implants also break down and have be replaced.

"The current standard of care does not actually restore the disc, so our hope with this engineered device is to replace it in a biological, functional way and regain full range of motion," said co-senior author Robert Mauck, PhD, a professor for Education and Research in Orthopaedic Surgery.

"This is a major step, to grow such a large disc in the lab, to get it into the disc space, and then to have it to start integrating with the surrounding native tissue. That's very promising."

The researchers say the next step is longer and more extensive tests on goats, before working on a bioengineered human model.  If those tests are successful, they eventually hope to test the implants in human trials.

"We have every reason to be optimistic, and if it works, we can change the way we think about treating some of these disc diseases," said Smith.

Stem Cell Therapy Becoming More Affordable

By Dr. Kristin Comella, Guest Columnist

Demand for stem cell therapy in the U.S. is anticipated to be at an all-time high this year as more patients seek to use their own cells to heal from various injuries and diseases. Among them are many chronic pain patients seeking alternatives to opioid medication and surgery for treating pain caused by systemic diseases, orthopedic conditions, neurological problems and aging.

At one time many patients traveled outside the country and were paying $20,000 to $50,000 for treatment at stem cell clinics in Europe and Asia. But over the past five years, the cost of stem cell therapy has come down dramatically.

Stem cell providers have been able to simplify the process into an outpatient protocol at hundreds of clinics throughout the U.S. As a result, costs are lower -- typically from $5,000 to $12,000 -- depending on the specific condition, practitioner, location and treatments required.

As with any specialized procedure, the cost will reflect the depth of the treatment and the time spent working with the patient. Unfortunately, stem cell treatments are not usually covered by insurance.


When compared to traditional surgery, where in most cases there is a similar price point and significant down-time, out-patient stem cell therapy is much less invasive. Patients treated with stem cells can return to their regular routines soon after the simple procedure, rather than requiring weeks of physical therapy or needing crutches and wheelchairs to get around.

Recent studies show that stem cells may be used in a variety of indications where opioids are frequently prescribed, such as back pain.  I recently co-authored a small study appearing in the Journal of Translational Medicine, in which 15 patients with degenerative disc disease were treated with stem cells derived from their own fat tissue. All 15 patients reported a statistically significant reduced pain level after stem cell therapy.

Adult stem cells may have the ability to improve and possibly even reverse the effects of many types of chronic pain caused by tissue or neurological damage. Adult stem cells are found in every part of the body, and can be harvested from a patient’s own tissue, such as adipose (fat) tissue, muscle, teeth, skin or bone marrow. Fat tissue is one of the most plentiful sources of stem cells in the body. In fact, approximately 500 times more stem cells can be obtained from fat than bone marrow.

Typically, during a simple outpatient procedure, stem cells can be isolated from fat tissue in 30 to 90 minutes, under local anesthesia using a mini-lipoaspirate technique. They can then be infused or re-injected after the mini-liposuction.

A recent study published in the Journal of Clinical Medicine Research underscores the safety of using a person’s own stem cells – known as autologous stem cells -- in treating degenerative diseases and injuries. The study was the largest safety trial to date that successfully used stem cells from fat in procedures completed on 676 patients. It is also the first trial to address cells from fat in multiple diseases and with different delivery routes.

To date, more than 10,000 patients have been successfully treated using the stem cell protocols being utilized at American Stem Cell.  There has been a significant increase in interest from patients in using stem cells for general health, anti-aging, and reducing inflammation. More and more patients are also seeking to preserve and bank their cells for “just in case” scenarios.

The positive results we’ve been getting are very encouraging and offer hope for many patients battling chronic pain. 

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Kristin Comella, PhD, is Chief Science Officer for American Stem Cell Centers of Excellence. She specializes in regenerative medicine with a focus on adipose derived stem cells.

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.

An Open Letter to My Senator: CDC Has Killed Me

(Editor’s Note: Charles Malinowski is a 59-year old Paso Robles, California man who lives with Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy (RSD), degenerative disc disease, ankylosing spondylitis, spinal stenosis and other chronic pain conditions.  He recently wrote this open letter to U.S. Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA). We thought his letter worth sharing with PNN readers.)

Dear Senator Harris,

The CDC has killed me!

Let me repeat that: The CDC has killed me!

I have a severe neurological condition that causes me unspeakable and crippling pain. Pain medication is literally the only thing keeping me alive. But with the issuance of the CDC’s short sighted, so-called voluntary opioid prescribing guidelines -- which are being rammed down the throats of medical providers -- my pain management doctor has cut me off of opiates.

For the last 10 years, I have been subjected to nearly every type of physical therapy, medical treatment and medication applicable to my affliction. The one and only thing that has ever had any demonstrable benefit in even temporarily suppressing my pain to a tolerable level has, unfortunately, been opiates.

In early October, I was told that I would have to stop taking either the oral opiates or the intrathecal opiates, as it was now illegal for a person to receive two different types of opiates via two different delivery methods concurrently. This was a major problem, as even with both oral and intrathecal opiates, my pain was severely under-managed to the point where I was almost completely bedridden. I left the house only to go to doctor's appointments.

When I was told that my pain management regimen - specifically the opiates - was going to be cut in half, even though my pain was already grossly under-managed, I spoke out about this.



As a result, not only was I cut off from the oral opiates, I got kicked out of the pain management practice where I have been a patient for more than seven years. The doctor said he didn't want to risk his license - but was perfectly willing to risk my life - over the CDC opioid guidelines.  These guidelines are supposed to be voluntary and are not supposed to take desperately needed pain medication away from legitimate chronic pain sufferers such as myself.

I expect that within 60 days, I will be dead from either heart failure or a stroke due to my body's inability to cope with the stress of the unrelenting pain. My neuropsychologist, who has been treating me for nearly 10 years, has consistently rated my level of pain as moderate to extreme, even while being medicated with both oral and intrathecal opiates, which I am now denied.

I'm not dead yet, but within 60 days I expect that the CDC will have effectively killed me. I honestly don't see myself being able to tolerate the pain any longer than that.

Congress, in going along with this blindly, will be explicitly complicit in this negligent homicide - or homicide by depraved indifference, take your pick - of one Charles James Malinowski, that being myself.

I would like to thank you, Senator, and all the rest of your colleagues for murdering me.

To help ease your conscience, it is not just me that Congress is complicit in murdering, but thousands, possibly tens of thousands of people in like positions.


Charles Malinowski


Pain News Network invites other readers to share their stories with us. Send them to

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.

I Miss the Person I Used to Be

By Deanna Singleton, Guest Columnist

I'm not the same person I was 8 years ago. It's not because I went through a tragic life experience or that I finally figured out the point of life.

It was that one day, all of a sudden, I opened my eyes in the morning and both my legs were in pain. And over the course of the last 8 years it keeps getting worse. I have advanced spinal stenosis, three bulging discs and degenerative disc disease.

It’s now to the point that at the age of 36, it takes everything I have to get in the shower or to just make a dinner for my kids and hubby. And if I actually do take a shower or do dishes, I'm usually in tears from the pain. I can't move the rest of the day from that small activity. Some days, just the water hitting or running over my skin is enough to make the average person want to die.

I want my life back. I didn't ask for this daily pain.

The first thing I think about when I open my eyes in the morning is where are my medications. I have to take pain medication just to walk through my house or to play with my children.



I used to have a very clean home. Now, not so much. Now it’s normal to walk into my home and see a mountain of clothes filling one whole couch. I loved to clean my house and make it a beautiful home for my family. I used to be out in my garden or flower beds, because that's my happy place. But I can no longer go there.

I used to be able to take my three girls on a walk to the park. Or walk the mall. Now I'm just lucky to be able to walk the grocery store, using the cart as a walker just long enough to get stuff for dinner.

Last but not least, I used to be a great wife. Smiling, happy and at the door to greet my husband after working a long hard day, with makeup and hair done. To make sure he remembers why he comes home every day. 

It's hard to feel pretty when you hurt so bad. Now I'm probably on the couch or in bed with my pajamas still on. With no makeup and hair in a messy bun. No more greetings at the door. And a smile no where to be found.

I used to be a great partner who was loving and affectionate. Who made sure my husband was happy in every way. Now it hurts so bad that we both just feel terrible afterwards.  Me because of the pain level, and him because he feels bad and that it's his fault now.

I used to work at two jobs, until I lost my pain meds due to my doctor not being comfortable any longer prescribing opioids because of the CDC guidelines and our local DEA. I was told by the doctor that he could no longer prescribe my medication.  And just like that, I went from 190 mg of oxycodone a day down to zero. No tapering.  My body then went into massive withdrawal.  I thought I was going to die. And since then I can no longer work.

In the state of Oregon we find no relief or sympathetic doctors who are willing to prescribe these life saving opiates that have been proven to give me my life back. And it's all because doctors are too scared of the CDC and the DEA to treat us patients, who rely on these meds to have any function or quality of life.

I have never wanted someone to cut into my body so bad. But no surgeon will do my surgery till I turn 40. My primary care provider will barely give me tramadol.  I've been to every specialist possible. And gone through countless medications, physical therapies and injections.

I'm just asking our medical doctors to do the job they once probably loved and not be so afraid to treat their patients as they know best. And let me be the mom and wife I used to be, and know I can be once again.

I just want my life back. For my kids, my marriage and for a somewhat active life.  I will start my life at 40.  I will probably be the happiest woman ever to return 40.

Deanna Singleton lives in Oregon with her family.  She is a proud supporter of #PatientsNotAddicts on Facebook and on Twitter.

Pain News Network invites other readers to share their stories with us.  Send them to:

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represent the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.

Study Tests Stem Cells for Degenerative Disc Disease

By Pat Anson, Editor

An Australian biotech company is testing a new stem cell treatment for degenerative disc disease.

Mesoblast is enrolling patients in a Phase 3 study to see if a single injection of mesenchymal precursor cells (MPCs) taken from the bone marrow of healthy donors can relieve back pain and improve the mobility of patients with disc disease, which occurs when the cushions between vertebrae wear down because of aging, genetics or injuries.

Millions of MPCs are injected directly into the damaged disc in an outpatient procedure. Previous studies have found that MPCs have anti-inflammatory effects, and help strengthen and improve the stability of damaged discs. The treatment is being developed for patients who have exhausted other options for their back pain.

“Patients with this level of degeneration often try multiple treatments for relief, including pain medication, massage, physical therapy, chiropractic adjustments and acupuncture,” says lead investigator Kee Kim, MD, professor of neurological surgery and co-director of the University of California Davis Spine Center.

“For some of them, nothing seems to help, and we end up operating to remove the degenerated disc and fuse the spine to eliminate motion that may cause increased pain. We want to know if a single dose of this investigational therapy can offer relief without the need for surgery.”

UC Davis is one of 28 sites in the United States and Australia involved in the study. Participants with degenerative disc disease in the lower back will receive injections of either MPCs, MPCs with a carrier material (hyaluronic acid) or a placebo. Although the MPCs are collected from donors, tissue matching is not necessary.

Following treatment, participants will be evaluated by researchers six times over the course of a year. They also will be given the option to participate in an extension of the study to track their progress for three years after the initial injection.

Previous studies have found that MPCs have anti-inflammatory effects, and help strengthen and improve the stability of damaged discs. Researchers caution, however, that the treatment may not be effective for everyone.

“Many patients with back pain will not benefit from this stem cell therapy and may still require surgery,” Kim said. “For some patients, it could offer improvement. For these patients, it is worth exploring this alternative.”

You can find out more about the study by clicking here.

Why Smoking is a Pain in the Neck

By Pat Anson, Editor

Need another reason to stop smoking? What if you knew it was causing that pain in your neck?

That’s the conclusion of a new study being presented this week at the annual meeting of the Association of Academic Physiatrists. In a study of 182 patients who were given CT scans,  researchers found that smokers were more likely to have cervical degenerative disc disease.

“This is another example of the detrimental effects of smoking. Tobacco abuse is associated with a variety of diseases and death, and there are lifestyle factors associated with chronic neck pain,” says lead investigator Mitchel Leavitt, MD, resident physician at Emory University’s Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation.

“Pain and spine clinics are filled with patients who suffer chronic neck and back pain, and this study provides the physician with more ammunition to use when educating them about their need to quit smoking.”

The cervical spine is located in the neck and is made up of bones called vertebrae. Between these bones are cervical discs that absorb shock to the spine. Through the normal aging process, these discs slowly degenerate, which means they become dehydrated and shrink.

In some cases, the drying of the disc may cause cracks and tears, through which some of the jelly-like central portion of the disc may spill out and irritate local nerves. That can result in pain in the shoulders, arms, hands and fingers.

It isn’t only wear and tear that can damage these discs. Some unhealthy habits, such as smoking, can add to cervical disc degeneration.

“Smoking is not healthy for a person’s intervertebral discs given the risk of developing microvascular disease – a disease of the small blood vessels – due to nicotine abuse,” says Leavitt. “Intervertebral discs receive their nourishment from the microvasculature that line the endplates on either side of each disc; when these blood vessels are damaged, the discs do not receive nourishment and this may speed up the degenerative process.”

While smoking has been associated with degeneration in the lumbar spine, this was one of the first studies to make the association with the cervical spine.  The patients evaluated by Leavitt and his colleagues were mostly female (57 percent), and about a third were smokers. A radiologist and a physiatrist – a physician who specializes in physical medicine and rehabilitation – reviewed their CT scans for signs of cervical degenerative disc disease. The amount of damage was rated on a scale of zero to 15.

Current smokers were found to have more cervical degenerative disc disease and were given a "damage score" that was about one point higher, on average. Not surprisingly, researchers also found that aging was associated with worsening cervical degenerative disc disease, but diabetes, hypertension, high cholesterol and high BMI were not.

Leavitt believes more research is needed on other lifestyle factors, such as high fat diets, alcohol use and obesity to see how they relate to chronic back and neck pain.

“Virtually everyone knows that moderate exercise somewhere around four to five times per week is beneficial, plus other lifestyle factors like avoidance of smoking and a proper diet are equally important. However, these topics are usually geared towards heart health, lowering blood pressure, managing diabetes, or controlling other medical conditions, and not specific to the spine,” Leavitt said. “It is one thing to live to the age of 95, and it is another to live to 95 while retaining one's mobility and being free of pain. Lifestyle medicine will likely play a large role in the future of healthcare, and having plenty of data to support lifestyle management is critical.”

Previous studies have found that smoking increases your chances of having several types of chronic pain conditions.

A study of over 6,000 Kentucky women found that those who smoked had a greater chance of having fibromyalgia, sciatica, chronic neck pain, chronic back pain and joint pain than non-smokers. Women in the study who smoked daily more than doubled their odds of having chronic pain.

A large study in Norway found that smokers and former smokers were more sensitive to pain than non-smokers. Smokers had the lowest tolerance to pain, while men and women who had never smoked had the highest pain tolerance.

In a recent study published in JAMA Neurology, Swedish researchers reported that continuing to smoke after a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis significantly accelerates progression of the disease.

Opioids Saved My Life

By Rebecca Roberts, Guest Columnist

My new life of chronic pain started in May of 2005. After being diagnosed with degenerative disc disease, I was given a series of 3 epidural steroid injections with a corticosteroid made by Pfizer called Depo-Medrol.

I had no relief from the first two injections, but my doctor insisted that I try a third one. He struggled to get the needle into the epidural space, probably because of scar tissue in my back caused by a prior back surgery, a laminectomy.

After the 3rd steroid injection, I had a severe, instant headache, which was relieved somewhat when I laid down. The doctor had punctured my dura, the outer lining of the spinal cord, which caused a spinal leak.

He was defensive when I told him about my headache pain, saying, “No way, there was no fluid in my syringe.”

After an unsuccessful blood patch, I ended up in the ER a week later with the worst, throbbing headache I ever suffered. Every time I lifted my head I vomited violently.

The doctor ordered numerous tests and he finally diagnosed me with too much STRESS! I knew something had gone wrong during the epidural steroid injection, yet my doctor blamed me for the harm he did to my spine. My pain worsened over time and it became so intense that I thought about suicide.

Luckily, I found a doctor who prescribed opioids for my intractable pain or I would not be here. Opioids saved my life.

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I tried many other drugs, including Lyrica, which is much more expensive, made me tired and affected my thinking abilities.  Opioids allow me to do my grocery shopping and care for myself.  If I don't have access to my pain meds, I have no quality of life. Opioids keep my pain at tolerable levels. It does not get rid of my pain totally, nothing ever will.

Opioids are often blamed for accidental overdoses, but I know better as I have arachnoiditis friends who committed suicide because their pain was so bad.  Some families deny it was suicide because insurance companies will not pay if a family member commits suicide.

Eventually I found a doctor who diagnosed me with arachnoiditis. There is no cure for this pain condition. It is mainly iatrogenic, which means it is caused by a medical procedure.

I also found out arachnoiditis is caused by Depo-Medrol. Pfizer warns against the use of this drug in epidurals in Australia and New Zealand. The New Zealand datasheet states that Depo-Medrol must not be used in epidurals and on page 18 it says it can cause arachnoiditis.  Patients need to read the datasheet for themselves before they agree to allow a doctor to do an injection near their spinal cord.

Three months after my epidurals, I could no longer work and had to leave my quality control job at a manufacturing plant, making transmission parts for Honda, which I had done successfully for four years. I loved my job and worked 60 to 70 hours per week.  Now I rely on social security disability. 

Luckily, my disability was quickly approved. Many of my arachnoiditis friends struggled for years to get their diagnosis.  Some never do.  According to one estimate, there are 11,000 new cases of arachnoiditis each year, but I think it is much more than that because doctors will not admit to harm.

My medical injury was 10 years ago.  I have been on a high stable dose of opioids with no increases. Now there is so much talk with the Centers for Disease Control Prevention creating guidelines to control opioid prescribing.

The CDC is clueless because they are recommending a cap on the daily dosages. How can they estimate a person’s pain levels? Everyone is different, and there are genetic differences and high metabolizers who need higher doses to control their pain. If that happens, my pain will be uncontrolled again, and I worry about my future. 

Is this fair to the thousands or even millions of pain patients who may suffer from arachnoiditis, who have have been harmed by the medical community and incompetence of the Food and Drug Administration? Even though the FDA issued a warning on steroids used for back pain, doctors are ignoring it and not telling their patients. We were harmed and now we suffer because doctors are turning us away.

Thank you to producer Gerri Constant and KCBS-TV in Los Angeles for reporting on the dangers of epidural injections.  We agree with Dr. Forest Tennant that this pain condition is no longer rare.

Rebecca Roberts lives in Indiana. She is a member and supporter of the Arachnoiditis Society for Awareness and Prevention (ASAP)  and the Facebook group Arachnoiditis Together We Fight.

Pain News Network invites other readers to share their stories with us. 

Send them to:

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represent the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.