Clinical Trial Using Stem Cells for Rotator Cuff Tears Approved by FDA

Two clinical trials run by Sanford Health have been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to use fat stem cells from the abdomen to heal rotator cuff tears. The trials are small so far, but researchers hope to expand them to bigger trials in the future.

The team performed an hourlong procedure to remove fat from the abdomen, separate the stem cells and then inject them into the injured rotator cuff. They reported choosing fat stem cells over bone marrow stem cells because, in previous research on animals, they found the body more likely to accept the fat-derived cells. These cells are also more likely to generate cartilage and bone, which is essential in healing an injury like the ones the team focused on for this trial.

The trials are still ongoing, but no adverse effects have been reported thus far.

Rotator Cuff Injuries 

Rotator cuff injuries are one of the most common joint injuries. The rotator cuff consists of four muscles and tendons surrounding the shoulder joint. This group of muscles and tendons provides support and strength for the shoulder. Injuries to the area can be extremely painful and cause loss of motion.

Although the rotator cuff can be injured in sports and motor vehicle accidents, most of these injuries are a result of aging and the deterioration of the cuff, according to the American Society for Surgery of the Hand.

In 2013 alone, 2 million people in the United States sought medical care because of a problem with their rotator cuff, according to statistics from the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. It’s hard to ignore pain from an injury like this because it makes daily activities such as brushing your hair or putting on your seatbelt painful, said Dr. Ahvie Herskowitz, founder of San Francisco Stem Cell Treatment Center and Anatara Medicine.

“Patients with orthopedic injuries such as rotator cuff injuries are often not given many choices when it comes to treatment,” he said. “That’s why we focus so much on offering stem cell therapy to those patients at our practice. We believe in providing alternatives to surgery and believe stem cells are the key.”

Treating Rotator Cuff Injuries 

There are a few treatment options currently recommended when it comes to rotator cuff injuries. Each depends on the health of the patient, along with the extent of the tear or injury. The first recommendation is rest. Avoiding activities that put stress on the joint in order to give it time to heal itself is often the first line of treatment.

The use of physical therapy through stretching and exercises designed to strengthen the shoulder and improve mobility can also be beneficial to those with a rotator cuff injury. If none of those treatments help, many doctors will recommend steroid injections.

“The problem with steroid injections is that they aren’t a long-term solution,” said Herskowitz. “And they don’t work for everyone.”

Finally, if all else has failed to improve the injury, surgery may be required to reattach the tendon and repair the rotator cuff.