DENVER — Stem cell therapy soon might become the go-to treatment option for patients with osteoarthritis or chronic injury. But is the treatment for everybody?
It was the answer for former Broncos player Mark Schlereth, who dealt with daily pain.
“I call it a varying degree of crappiness of how I feel,” Schlereth said.
Schlereth played guard in the NFL for 12 seasons, and aches and pain were considered the daily norm for him.
“You have to understand when you play that game you live with a certain amount of pain your entire adult life,” he said.
He has the broken helmet he played with to prove it.
“This was a helmet that I actually broke; I cracked it in a game,” Schlereth said.
All the hits, blocks and big games came with a price, according to Schlereth.
“Twenty knee surgeries, a bunch of elbow surgeries, it’s back surgeries, kidney surgery, 29 combined surgeries,” he said.
It wasn’t until recently that the three-time Super Bowl champion found stem cell therapy, a treatment many in the medical community are hailing as a miracle.
“It’s amazing what a difference it’s made,” he said.
Dr. Michael Cantor injected both of Schlereth’s shoulders with a combination of the former football player’s own plasma, platelets and stem cells.
“These platelets will then send a signal out to the bone marrow to send in the stem cells and once they arrive in the bloodstream at the site, the platelets drive the reaction and say, stem cells lay down new cartilage, new bone, new ligament,” Cantor said.
Dr. Joel Cherdack of Denver Regenerative Medicine says it’s like hitting the reset button.
“We’ve been able to have them walking around pain free within four weeks,” he said.
It promotes a process of healing in the body, giving it a second chance.
“You’ll wake up one morning and go, ‘Wow, I was in a position sleeping that I couldn’t have slept six weeks ago,’” Schlereth said.
This is where the unthinkable is now becoming a reality.
“I think it’s going to be a revolution in orthopedics,” said Dr. Cecilla Pascual-Garrido, the leading researcher on stem cell therapy at University of Colorado Hospital.
But she did say this treatment isn’t for everyone.
“The time that we have to treat these patients is the time between when they were active and happy and between when they really need a hip replacement,” Pascual-Garrido said.
Pat Lynch was a lifelong runner, and years of pounding the streets and mountain trails left him with daily hip and back pain. The pain has been so debilitating that it takes away from everyday things, including his job.
Lynch decided to look into stem cell treatments, so he sought out Pascual-Garrido, who told him he was too far gone, saying it would not be appropriate in his case to do stem cells.
“The key is to have a patient with early osteoarthritis. If you have a patient with advanced osteoarthritis, the therapy will not work,” Pascual-Garrido said.
Lynch’s hip is nearly bone on bone; Pascual-Garrido said the stem cell can’t regenerate tissue or cartilage that isn’t there.
“It’s still research and we will have many years ahead to understand and see which patient is going to be beneficial from this treatment,” she said.
Lynch is left with the option of living in pain or having a hip replacement.
“I’m not particularly fond of taking a chunk of my body out and replacing it with steel. I would rather do stem cells,” he said.
In the Schlereth household, Mark is not the only one who has received this stem cell treatment. His Major League Baseball playing son Daniel has also undergone the treatment.
Mark Schlereth said he’s looking forward to getting the therapy everywhere it hurts.
“You know, I’m going to be like the bionic man by the time it’s all said and done. It’s just going to take a little time,” he said.
It can cost anywhere from $1,200 to $8,000 a treatment.
Stem cell is not covered by insurance, but doctors said this is the future of medicine.