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Stem Cells: The History and Future of Life-Changing Medicine

By Ric Coggins

Dr. Trevor Ferguson has been involved in the arena of regenerative stem cell medicine since 2015, when he first explored the treatment for his own father’s chronic condition. As a Doctor of Chiropractic, the concept of regenerative medicine was certainly not new to him, but stem cell therapy was.

Ancestor Cells

While stem cell therapies are still considered new, the science from which they are derived has been around for centuries. In the early 1800s, scientists were already searching for cells that gave rise to all other cells. They coined the term “Ancestor Cells” to describe them. Over a century later, medicine would turn to these Ancestor Cells when confronted with the aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in an effort to help those suffering from radiation poisoning. In the 1950s, research conducted by Egon Lorentz illustrated that mice who had been exposed to a lethal dose of radiation could recover if they received bone marrow from a healthy donor. Although the field of medicine was not yet fully able to comprehend how this process helped, soon it would. It turned out that the “active ingredient” in these transplants were the hematopoietic stem cells contained in the marrow. 

Embryonic Stem Cells

 By the 1980s, much more was understood about this genre of cells, and research into their potential continued with experimentation of embryonic stem cells in mice. During this time, it was learned that these undifferentiated cells  are essentially blank slates, with the potential to develop into virtually any type of cell (this is what happens during gestation).

Researchers at the University of Wisconsin first isolated human embryonic stem cells in 1998. While this research proved invaluable to advancing our understanding of stem cells, a firestorm arose over the ethics of using human embryos for research. The abortion debate entered in, and there was an organic moral concern building. However, it is also known that at least some, if not much, of that ‘concern’ that seemed about morality and ethics was, in fact, funded by pharmaceutical company lobbies    and predictably so, as this new technology would forever be out of reach from a patent standpoint and would potentially compete against patented products already or soon-to-be in the marketplace.

Whether responding to ethics or the pharmaceutical lobby, President George W. Bush imposed broad restrictions in 2001 on embryonic research, and in 2006 vetoed a bill attempting to mitigate those restrictions. It was then that medicine was forced to look elsewhere for the “El Dorado of the Ancestor Cells.”

Pluripotent Stem Cells

Fortunately, science did not have to look far. Continuing research revealed that both the umbilical cord and, to a somewhat lesser degree, the placenta of a full-term human baby contain a large number of undifferentiated stem cells referred to as “pluripotent” stem cells, or those with “many potentials.” As umbilical cords and placentas were typically discarded byproducts of the birthing process, these were readily available for “harvesting” for research without posing ethical concerns or considerations.  

According to Dr. Ferguson, the “gold standard” of stem cell therapy today is called Wharton’s Jelly, a whitish, viscous material laced with stem cells that is found within the umbilical cord. Named for 17th century scientist Thomas Wharton, this gelatinous substance was first isolated by him in the 1650s. Little did he know he was much closer to a fountain of youth than Ponce de Leon ever dreamed of.

Dr. Ferguson’s entry into this aspect of regenerative medicine came when he had reached a fork in the road when treating his father’s knees. “My dad blew out his knees in high school football. I remember all while growing up my dad’s knees were always hurting him.” said Dr. Ferguson. “When I was in high school, he was only in his forties, but he often hobbled like a man in his 70’s. After becoming a doctor, I treated his knees for several years as a chiropractor, but in 2015 he came to me and told me he was ready for knee replacement surgery. Coincidentally, three days prior I had learned about stem cells, and I asked Dad if he was interested.”

His father responded that he had been in pain for years, and although he knew the surgery and recovery wasn’t easy, he didn’t feel he had much to lose. As an experiment, Dr. Ferguson acquired a ‘dose’ of Wharton’s Jelly, and his nurse practitioner administered the injection. Typically, it can take a couple of months for stem cell transplant patients to notice improvement in their symptoms, and this proved to be true for the senior Ferguson, as well. Not knowing what to expect initially, Dr. Ferguson was worried that he had wasted his father’s time and money. But after eight weeks, some improvement was recognized and continued until eventually all his knee pain was gone. 

Encouraged by his success with his father’s treatment, Dr. Ferguson expanded his practice to offer stem cell therapy injections to assist in the regeneration of his patients’ knees, hips, and shoulders, and even offered systemic injections, as well. With the assistance of his nurse practitioner to administer the injections, Ferguson now focuses on regenerative medicine full time, selling his chiropractic practice to open Stem Cell Pro in Gilbert, which provides patients with a variety of stem cell therapy options, as well as platelet rich plasma (PRP) injections and a full offering of IV lab services. Ferguson also owns and operates Arizona Beauty Lab in Gilbert.

He notes that in the eight years that his practice has been offering stem cell therapy, a full 90% of his patients are completely satisfied with the improvements they experience and have avoided surgery and the risks entailed with going under the knife. Other patients have experienced enough partial relief and reduction in pain to avoid surgery, as well. Ferguson also states that a full 20% of his patients were not surgery candidates for multiple reasons and have received relief that otherwise would not have been available were it not for stem cells.

“I really believe that stem cells are the future of medicine,” says Ferguson. 

Today, there are over a thousand stem cell trials currently underway – which means the science and results around stem cell therapies are “refreshing” at a rapid rate. As we continue to gain more understanding, the expansion of their applications to treat some of human kind’s most troubling diseases is both exciting and possibly somewhat unfathomable to some. And while there is much to be known and many obstacles to overcome, the future of regenerative medicine looks brighter than ever before. 

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