Stem Cell injections for knee meniscus tears and post-meniscectomy

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Ross Hauser, MD and Katherine L. Worsnick, MPAS, PA-C

This article will explore new research of that paints a fascinating picture of natural meniscus healing, surgical and non-surgical meniscus repair, and when Stem Cell Therapy may or may not work for your meniscus tear. We will also discuss the role of comprehensive Stem Cell Prolotherapy in not only treating the meniscus but the articular knee cartilage as well. If you are considering meniscus surgery or already had meniscus surgery, this article will provide some good information in understanding your injury and what to expect from surgery and what to expect from stem cell Prolotherapy.

The surgical realities of meniscus tear repairs – what the United States Military says:

If you are reading this article it is likely that you have been given a surgical recommendation to fix your meniscus problems. You are here because you may not be convinced that surgery is your best option or you simply do not have the time and desire to go to surgery. If you are still thinking about surgery, here is a little more information to consider:

Army physicians from the William Beaumont Army Medical Center and doctors from Rush University Medical Center have published a new March 2018 study in the Journal of Knee Surgery. It reports on how military surgeons dealt with meniscal injury. The report reveals findings on nearly 30,000 meniscus surgeries.

  • In 81.3% of patients, a partial meniscectomy was performed. (Some of the meniscus was removed as not repairable).
  • In 20.3% a meniscal repair was performed. This surgery does not remove meniscus tissue as the main focus or repair but stitches up the tear. This is typically limited to the red-zone of the meniscus where ample blood supply allows for suturing and healing.
  • Very rarely a meniscus allograft transplantation (cadaver donor) in 0.7% of patients was performed.
  • Older patients were more likely to get a meniscectomy and less likely to get a repair.(1)

What are we to make of this? In 4 out of 5 patients, meniscus tissue had to be removed. In 1 out of 5 patients the injury was fixable because of location and size. Meniscus transplant has lost much of its appeal.

For many, the meniscus can heal itself if you do not remove tissue. How cells in the knee work to repair meniscus tears.

One of the often overlooked components of meniscus surgery is that it removes healing elements from the knee. Simply, meniscus surgery removes tissue, weakens the structure of the knee, leads to degeneration through instability and knee breakdown. To complete this assault on the knee, surgery removes healing elements within the meniscus tissue that may help the knee naturally rebuild itself.

  • In September 2017, in the Journal of Orthopaedic Research, (2) doctors at the University of Iowa, working with researchers from the Harvard Medical School and the National Institutes of Health, looked for the healing elements in the meniscus and identified what they do.

In this study, the researchers found that the meniscus has its own brigade of chondrogenic progenitor cells (Chondrogenic = cartilage, progenitor = creator or originating cells) specifically in the blood-rich red zone of the meniscus. Further, the cells in the blood-rich zone could be called upon to migrate across the meniscus and appear at the site of a white zone (no blood supply portion of the meniscus) injury. (See our discussion red-zone and white-zone meniscal tears.)

Knee white and red zones of meniscus

In the research above we talked about the 20% of meniscus injuries that are good candidates for surgical repair because that portion of the meniscus had healing elements. In this research, those healing elements were able to cover the whole meniscus.

  • In essence, the injury is calling for help and the chondrogenic progenitor cells respond to begin the rebuilding process. The meniscus has its own damage control mechanism, it sits in the blood-rich portion of the meniscus. When red zone meniscus is removed, the meniscus ability to heal itself is removed with it.

Research like this reaffirms two things:

  1. The Meniscus does have the capability to repair and regenerate.
  2. When we surgically remove meniscus tissue we remove the cells that can naturally repair the meniscal damage.

The Meniscus does have the capability to repair and regenerate but the articular cartilage of the knee cannot hold the knee together long enough to let this happen

This is a remarkably fascinating study. Japanese researchers wanted to examine the meniscus healing process after an injury or surgical removal of meniscus tissue. In an animal study, the researchers removed a large portion of the meniscus in mice.(3)

What the doctors observed was the meniscus repair and regeneration process after the meniscectomy. After six weeks the doctors observed regenerated tissues resembled those of an intact meniscus forming. The bad news was the articular cartilage of the knee where the removed meniscus use to be. The cartilage significantly degenerated between two and four weeks after the surgical procedure, and subtle progression in cartilage degeneration was observed between 4 and 6 weeks.

The destructive cartilage/meniscus environment – no wonder knees hurt after surgery!

Increase joint contact stress vs meniscus removed

  • The suggestion is that the meniscus was trying to heal while the knee environment was collapsing towards degenerative disease. We have new meniscus tissue at 6 weeks being crushed by progressive degenerative changes.

This study requires a deeper look because it also gives us an understanding of what happens in the knee after meniscectomy.

The researchers in this study performed a meniscectomy in the mice.

  • The left anterior halves of the medial menisci in mice were removed. Then the mice were observed to see how their knee dealt with this injury.
    • At day three: Extensive macrophagic infiltration into the synovial membrane around the meniscectomized area was observed.
      • Explanation: macrophages are immune cells that clean up and remove debris left behind by injury. The body is removing hindrances to healing. In other words, the knee is getting ready to heal.
  • Synovial hyperplasia was detected 2 weeks after the operation.
    • Explanation: Synovial hyperplasia is inflammation.  Healing inflammation. The synovial tissue of the knee was filled with many fibroblastic cells (collagen producers to rebuild cartilage).
  • The articular cartilage at the interface of the resected meniscus significantly degenerated between 2 and 4 weeks after the surgical procedure, the subtle progression of cartilage degeneration was observed between 4 and 6 weeks. The degeneration slowed but continued.

In this study’s summation, the immune system’s rapid response to repair the knee, not only tries to regenerate meniscus tissue damaged by the surgery but also tried to reinforce and prevent damage to the articular cartilage of the knee as if the immune system knew that the meniscectomy would cause articular cartilage.

The Japanese researchers concluded that the remaining meniscus and the articular cartilage of the meniscectomized knee tried, in vain, to work together to regenerate the meniscus and protect the cartilage.

Harvard researchers published in the medical journal Connective Tissue Research, (May 2017)  found similar findings. They isolated and studied the native meniscal tissue in mice and also found an abundance of healing mechanisms.(4)

  • The mouse meniscal stem cells had clonogenicity (the ability to survive in the hostile inflammatory environment and reproduce)  and multi-potentiality (the ability to change and signal multiple types of healing mechanisms).
  • They had the ability to create important extracellular matrix components of an adult meniscus. Please see my article on extracellular matrix and joint healing for fascinating new research.

Stem Cell Therapy for meniscus damage – research and validity of treatment

Meniscus tear healing

Stem cell therapy, used in conjunction with dextrose Prolotherapy is a non-surgical regenerative treatment that stimulates natural healing repair in the knee. The goal of the treatment to rebuild tissue and provide stability to the knee. Stem cell Prolotherapy is the combined use of your own harvested stem cells and dextrose Prolotherapy to treat the entire knee environment.

In research published by the Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery, doctors have found that a  single stem cell injection following meniscus knee surgery may provide knee pain relief and aid in meniscus regrowth. In this study, patients received a single injection of donated adult stem cells following the surgical removal of all or part of a torn meniscus. These patients reported a significant reduction in pain. Further, some meniscal tissue regrew. Up to 15 percent increase in meniscal volume at one year. There was no additional increase in meniscal volume at year two. (Comment: Maybe they should have given more than one injection.) (5)

That question was seemingly answered in accompanying press release from the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons’ press department.

“The results of this study suggest that mesenchymal stem cells have the potential to improve the overall condition of the knee joint,” said Dr. Vangsness (a study author). “I am very excited and encouraged” by the results. With the success of a single injection, “It begs the question: What if we give a series of injections?” (56)

Not all meniscus tears and injuries (even that after meniscus surgery) require stem cell therapy to heal. We have documented in numerous studies that simple dextrose Prolotherapy has a 90% success rate in our office. However, for cases of advanced meniscus and related cartilage damage, our team of Prolotherapy practitioners may choose to use stem cell injections in combination with dextrose Prolotherapy to strengthen and stabilize the surrounding support structures of the knee.

Injury to the meniscus is an injury to the entire knee joint. This is why many doctors can provide stem cell treatments, not all get the best results

An international team of researchers writing in the journal Sports Medicine (May 2017) offer a summary of their research that should be of great interest to the patient athlete researching stem cells for meniscus repair.(7)

  • “Regenerative medicine (stem cells, Prolotherapy and blood platelet solutions) seeks to harness the potential of cell biology for tissue replacement therapies, which will restore lost tissue functionality. Controlling and enhancing tissue healing is not just a matter of cells, but also of molecules and mechanical forces.”
    • My note: Stem cell treatments are much more than simply injecting stem cells into the knee – while there are no guarantees that any treatment will work 100%  – we, as doctors, have to make sure we are doing the most we can to guarantee success. This includes an understanding that an athlete may have had a long history of painkiller and cortisone use – this is explained in my article How stem cells heal degenerative joint disease after years of cortisone and painkillers
    • This is also covered in my article Why didn’t stem cell therapy work for my knee pain? Where I describe stem cell therapy failure because a single injection does not treat the whole knee. Meniscus damage is a whole knee disease as outlined in the research above.
  • Continuing the research cited above from the journal Sports Medicine: The researchers acknowledge the following problems with consistency in treatment. First they “describe the main biological technologies to boost musculoskeletal healing, including bone marrow and subcutaneous fat-derived regenerative products, as well as platelet-rich plasma and conditioned media (meniscus scaffolds).”
  • Then they examined a total of 54 studies investigated the effects of mesenchymal stem-cell products for joint conditions including anterior cruciate ligament, meniscus, and chondral lesions as well as osteoarthritis. In 22 studies, cellular products were injected intra-articularly, whereas in 32 studies mesenchymal stem-cell products were implanted during surgical/arthroscopic procedures. The heterogeneity of clinical conditions, cellular products, and approaches for delivery/implantation make comparability difficult.
  • Mesenchymal stem-cell products appear safe in the short- and mid-term, but studies with a long follow-up are scarce. Although the current number of randomized clinical studies is low, stem-cell products may have therapeutic potential. However, these regenerative technologies still need to be optimized.”

Stem cells, combined with Platelet Rich Plasma Therapy meniscus injections and Prolotherapy meniscus injections are healing solutions. Caring Medical has conducted research showing the effectiveness of PRP Prolotherapy (PRPP), including case reports of MRI-documented meniscus tears successfully treated with Prolotherapy and Platelet Rich Plasma.(8) 

If you want to discuss your specific case with our staff please contact us

1. Pekari TB, Wang KC, Cotter EJ, Kusnezov N, Waterman BR. Contemporary Surgical Trends in the Management of Symptomatic Meniscal Tears among United States Military Service members from 2010 to 2015. The journal of knee surgery. 2018 Mar 7. [Google Scholar]

2. Seol D, Zhou C, Brouillette MJ, Song I, Yu Y, Choe HH, Lehman AD, Jang KW, Fredericks DC, Laughlin BJ, Martin JA. Characteristics of meniscus progenitor cells migrated from injured meniscus. Journal of Orthopaedic Research. 2016 Nov 1. [Google Scholar]

3. Hiyama K, Muneta T, Koga H, Sekiya I, Tsuji K. Meniscal regeneration after resection of the anterior half of the medial meniscus in mice. Journal of Orthopaedic Research. 2016 Nov 2. [Google Scholar]

4. Gamer LW, Shi RR, Gendelman A, Mathewson D, Gamer J, Rosen V. Identification and characterization of adult mouse meniscus stem/progenitor cells. Connective tissue research. 2017 Feb 4:1-8. [Google Scholar]

5. Vangsness Jr CT, Jack Farr II, Boyd J, Dellaero DT, Mills CR, LeRoux-Williams M. Adult human mesenchymal stem cells delivered via intra-articular injection to the knee following partial medial meniscectomy: a randomized, double-blind, controlled study. JBJS. 2014 Jan 15;96(2):90-8. [Google Scholar]

6. Stem Cell therapy following Meniscal Surgery http://newsroom.aaos.org/media-resources/Press-releases/stem-cell-therapy-following-meniscus-knee-surgery-may-reduce-pain-restore-meniscus.htm

7.Andia I, Maffulli N. Biological therapies in regenerative sports medicine. Sports Medicine. 2017 May 1;47(5):807-28. [Google Scholar]

8. Hauser R, Phillips HJ, Maddela HS. The case for utilizing Prolotherapy as first-line treatment for meniscal pathology: a retrospective study shows Prolotherapy is effective in the treatment of MRI-documented meniscal tears and degeneration. Journal of Prolotherapy. 2010;2(3):416-437. [Google Scholar]

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