I’ve never put the two together-acupuncture and stem cells. After all, one is an ancient eastern tradition that’s been marginalized into the category of western alternative medicine and the other is state of the art scientific research pushing the boundaries of traditional western medicine. I actually chanced upon this topic while looking for something else in the US National Library of Medicine database. It jumped off the page because the juxtaposition of the word “acupuncture” and the term “stem cell”. Huh? Could these two be related? I read the article and was blown away that acupuncture could help stem cells engraft (at least in a rat), so I ran a separate search and was again blown away again that there is a significant body of literature on acupuncture and stem cells.
The first paper I reviewed looked at rats with spinal cord injuries. One group received “Governor-Vessel” electro-acupuncture plus stem cells surgically implanted into the damaged spinal cord, the second group got only the stem cells, and the third was a control. The acupuncture group had greater survival and engraftment (more of the stem cells attached and thrived) than the other two groups. The acupuncture treated rats also had more stem cells with greater differentiation into spinal cord nerve cells. The second paper investigated whether rats with a spinal cord injury that were treated with electro-acupuncture would stage a better recovery and why. Sure enough, the acupuncture treated rats had better stem cells in the injured spinal cord, better growth factor levels associated with nerve repair, and also recovered more limb movement! The third paper created brain injury in rats to determine the effects of acupuncture on the natural repair process. While the group with only the brain injury had a lower number of brain stem cells, the acupuncture treated rats had more stem and progenitor cells involved in brain repair.
The upshot? Who knew acupuncture could be such a powerful modulator of stem cell function (at least in lab rats)? In fact, there 72 published papers right now, many focusing on the use of Governor-Vessel electro-acupuncture to help the brain or spinal cord repair. This acupuncture meridian runs from the tailbone, along the spine, to the brain-so it’s traditionally associated with helping these structures heal. It blows me away that generations of acquired observational knowledge obtained by ancient Chinese masters would translate into western science.