Stem cells speed spinal fusion

MARLTON, N.J.; November 21, 2008

For Judy Odom, of Haddon Heights, New Jersey, even walking the dog is risky.

"I cannot feel my left foot. I can't trust that foot," she tell us.

It's all because of back problems - she has two slipped disks, and as you can see in this x-ray, her backbones have shifted, pinching her spinal cord and causing nerve damage.

"The back of my leg is totally numb," says Judy, 64.

Spinal fusion - surgery to remove the damaged disk and fuse the backbones together - was her only option for ending the pain.

Normally, that's a painful operation with a long recovery.

The bone to fuse the vertebrae is usually taken from a patient's own hip.

But Judy chose a new twist - a product that uses adult stem cells to speed the fusion. Sometimes, recovering from that extraction takes as long as for the fusion itself.

"You put them in bone, they'll turn into bone," says Dr. Mark Testaiuti, of Coastal Spine.

In the operating room, Dr. Testaiuti reduced the slip in Judy's spine, and removed bone chips to take pressure off the nerves.

To fuse the backbones, he first removed the damaged disk and - then...

"We put a spacer in, to hold the bones apart," he says afterward.

He adds, "We packed the stem cells inside the disk space, so that they would see blood and nutrients, and they would start growing bone inside her."

That packing material is an FDA-approved product called Trinity. It's a mixture of adult stem cells and crushed bone from a bone bank.

To add further strength, Dr. Testaiuti also placed a flexible rod along the backbones.

A month later-

"Hello, hello - how ya doing?" says Dr. Testauiti, and he greets Judy in the office. "Good!" she quickly responds.

She is better than just back on her feet - "I took a walk in the park. I went to the grocery store with my sister."

And she isn't taking any pain medications.

Dr. Testauiti says for some people, bones don't fuse well, but Judy's progress is on target.

He says, "The fusion is as solid as if you use the gold standard, bone from your hip."

All the work was done through just 2 small incisions.

And although Judy has more physical therapy ahead, she's already thinking about getting back to work, and taking a trip with her sister.

"Some place warm and wonderful," she quickly says.

Dr. Testaiuti says the overall recovery time is about 3 months, compared to a year for traditional fusions. And because there's no incision to harvest bone from the hip, infection rates are less.

At her latest office visit in September, Judy's recovery was still on target. She had no pain, no numbness, and she was swimming 3 times a week to strengthen her muscles.

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