Can a Stem Cell Treatment Regenerate My Degenerated Disc?

by Chris Centeno, MD /

regenerate degenerated discs

Way back in 2006, I’m pretty darn sure we were the first clinic on earth to inject mesenchymal stem cells into a human disc. Our hope was that what happened in rabbits, dogs, and rats would happen in people. That patients with severely degenerated discs would grow new ones. Regrettably, that didn’t happen. Now new research continues to explore why.

Understanding Spinal Discs and Disc Degeneration

Intervertebral discs are cushioning spacers that live between the vertebrae (backbones) in the spine. They look a bit like a small hockey puck and are located in the anterior portion, or the front, of the spine. Discs are filled with a gel-like substance (i.e., nucleus pulposus) and covered in a tough tissue called the annulus. They not only absorb shock but also allow for controlled motion in each level of the spine. Common problems with discs include herniations, bulging, tears, and degeneration. Today, we’re focusing on degenerated discs.

To be certain we’re on the same page, what we’re talking about in this post is a disc that is collapsed (lost height) and dried out. The holy grail of stem cell research in the spine is to find a magic injection that will regrow the height and re-create the matrix that holds onto water. How does that work?

Cells live inside the discs and produce chemicals that keep the discs nice and plump so they can properly cushion the vertebrae. Degeneration of the disc occurs when there aren’t enough living cells to maintain the disc, so it begins to break down. It also begins to collapse and get sloppy.

Traditional orthopedics will typically address the problem by performing highly invasive surgeries, such as spinal fusions or disc replacements, which are riddled with side effects. But is there a regenerative medicine option? Let’s review a study by a veterinarian whose recent research confirms what we already know: stem cells can’t regenerate degenerated discs!

Study Only Finds That Dogs with Naturally Degenerated Discs Don’t Respond to Stem Cells

The new study was conducted on German shepherds with naturally degenerated discs. Working under the hypothesis that stem cell injections may regenerate intervertebral discs, researchers investigated how the dogs responded to injections of their own cultured bone marrow stem cells following disc surgery. Three dogs received stem cell injections (test group) and three received a placebo (control group).

The results? There were no clinical differences in outcomes between the test group and the control group, and there was no regeneration found in the discs. The study does report that it found that the dogs receiving the stem cells tolerated them well and without complication (not surprising since they were autologous stem cells, or each dog’s own stem cells), though they plan to use this finding as a first step to researching other ways to use stem cells (possibly adding targeted growth factors to the mix) to treat degenerated discs.

Stem Cell Injections Can’t Regenerate Degenerated Discs

As I said at the start of this article, stem cell injections don’t regenerate degenerated discs. How then could there be many animal models where this appears to happen? These are all stab models, meaning the researchers created what we never see in the real world, a suddenly degenerated disc caused by someone sucking out the inside of the structure. Hence, this is the first study I have seen that looked at whether stem cells could regenerate naturally degenerated discs (meaning these German shepherds had what more closely resembles what patients with degenerative disc disease have).

So if stem cells won’t regrow a degenerated disc that has lost height, what are stem cells good for in the low back? What we discovered was that if you grew them the right way and placed them in the right spot, they can help bulging discs reduce their size. In addition, a same-day stem cell procedure can help patients with painful disc tears but who still have good disc height. To see what a real disc stem cell procedure looks like, see my video below:

Hence, beware, also, of any clinic saying it can use stem cells to regrow discs that have collapsed due to advanced degenerative disc disease. This is a scam. There are no magic stem cells that can grow you a brand-new disc.

To learn more, read my book on regenerative medicine in the spine (click the image below):

If you have less time, check out my video below that summarizes the topic of which disc types respond to which treatments:

The upshot? This animal study is really the first to get it right. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been wasted on research and human clinical trials trying to replicate overly optimistic animal models that used a silly stab injury model. Stem cells won’t reliably regenerate a collapsed degenerative disc. They can do some other important things, and if you read my book, you’ll see what stem cells and platelets can do, when used the right way.

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3 thoughts on “Can a Stem Cell Treatment Regenerate My Degenerated Disc?

  1. Ben

    Hi, thanks for the very interesting and informative post. I have a couple of questions:
    1) This clinic https://www.viktoriaklinik-bochum.de/en/services/spine-therapy/surgical/intervertebral-disc-transplantation/autologous-tissue-transplants.php performs a procedure they call Autologous IVD replacement therapy. They essentially remove a portion of the disc, grow additional disc cells in a lab for a few weeks, and then inject the new disc cells into the disc. This seems to me to be a plausible alternative, and potentially more effective at regenerating a disc than simply injecting stem cells into the disc. Are you familiar with this approach, and if so what is the current state of evidence? Any other thoughts on this or other similar procedures?
    2) I know there are companies working on using autologous stem cells to grow lungs, there have already been successful autologous bladder transplants, etc. That being said, the IVD seems to be a relatively simple structure. Are you aware of any movement toward growing an autologous disc in a lab, and performing a full autologous disc replacement instead of artificial disc replacement?
    I fully realize that you don’t have definitive answers on these topics, but I am very curious to get your thoughts on the above approaches. I have a very cursory understanding of all of this, but these seem to me to be the most likely ways to put a healthy disc where there used to be a degenerated disc. Thanks in advance for the info!

    1. Chris Centeno Post author

      Ben, I am familiar with this approach and while the animal results look promising, I haven’t seen any human data to show that this would work. Given that all of the animal models have failed in humans to date, I wouldn’t be overly optimistic. I haven’t seen anybody offering a lab-grown disc, but that may become possible in the future. There are many challenges that would have to be surmounted, like how do you get the disc to grow into and integrate into the vertebra and how do you also fix the other parts of the damaged functional spinal unit like facet joints, ligaments, and muscles.

  2. Mark

    Wanted to get your take on this clinic that has been aggressively advertising their procedures in our local market:
    https://www.ktnv.com/morning-blend/lasr-clinics-international-53018
    https://www.lasrclinics.com/lasr-therapy/
    https://www.dropbox.com/s/ou6i5epa2n2joaj/LASR%20Clinic%20Brochure.pdf?dl=0

    Summary of procedures:
    – “LASR” (Laser-Assisted Spinal Rehydration) which looks like 3 steps: decompression/traction that promises to “pump up the discs like a flat tire”.
    – Class IV laser that promises to regenerate and heal.
    – Autologous RBC injections
    I went in for an appointment earlier this year to check it out. They quoted something like $6500-$8000 for several weeks of sessions for the above procedures. The doc shown in the paid for TV ad marketing materials is a DC, by the way. They have an MD as the clinic director. https://www.lasrclinics.com/about-us/
    The first two procedures seem to be nothing more than what most chiros and PT clinics offer and seem fairly benign, although I’ve research that Class IV lasers, being more thermally active, may burn tissue, if not in skilled hands. I still don’t how to ascertain the validity of the RBC injections. When I received my 3rd (and final) PRP injection in my shoulder, the vial was mostly RBCs and the inflammation was far more acute than the previous injections. I can’t think of what might happened if injected in or near my spine!

Chris Centeno, MD

Regenexx Founder

Chris Centeno, MD is a specialist in regenerative medicine and the new field of Interventional Orthopedics. Centeno pioneered orthopedic stem cell procedures in 2005 and is responsible for a large amount of the published research on stem cell use for orthopedic applications.
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