Biotech and Pharma

Regenerative medicine's big bet: Putting an end to injury pain

Janine Wolf, Special to
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With professional sports organizations plagued with consistent athlete injuries and their long-term effects, one blossoming area of medicine is specializing in a way to make long and painful injury recovery a thing of the past.

This field of research—referred to as regenerative medicine and expected to mature into a $24.7 billion market by 2017, according to at least one estimate—is gaining more attention because of its unique pain alleviation methods. The linchpin of the field is the use of stem cells, which can be applied to a range of therapies for ligaments, tendons and skeletal injuries that affect sports players and non-athletes alike.

Regeneration has been around since 1981, but has gotten more attention as a number of organizations have funneled money into the research. In 2013, Harvard Medical School received a 10-year, multimillion grant from the National Football League Players Association for an initiative to prevent, treat and study football-related injuries and ailments. Included in the multi-disciplinary effort are treatments that utilize regenerative medicine.

The Mayo Clinic calls the therapy a "game-changing area of medicine," offering effective therapy for people whose conditions are beyond repair. Experts say the field, which combines cell biology, traditional medicine and physics, holds promise for treating numerous ailments.

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Advances in the field have opened up opportunities for companies such as Applied Biologics, a biotech company that uses regenerative medicine to develop treatments and products. In an interview, company President Edward Britt says the work done in the sector is speeding up the process of healing, so people can "get back on the field, the court or the road quicker and stronger."

With broken bones being one of the most frequent of athletic injuries, orthopedics is a promising subset of the regenerative field. Britt said that market was a particular emphasis for Applied Biologics, with orthopedic physicians "getting good results" from the company's solutions.

No more fuss over stem cells?

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The buzz surrounding regenerative medicine belies the controversy stem cell-based medicine has generated for at least the last decade. The use of human cells often sparks furious ethical and religious debates. In recent years, passions have cooled in the wake of scientific breakthroughs that ushered in the increased use of adult—rather than embryonic—stem cells.

Still, many companies still rely on amniotic cells, which the National Center for Biotechnology Information says helps reduce inflammation to "contribute to an enhanced cure rate" and accelerate healing.

Applied Biologics is one such company that uses amniotic fluid as a main ingredient for products that they say reduce inflammation and repair soft tissue. The cells are extracted from live, healthy donors during elective cesarean section delivery.

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"The mothers are tested and asked prior to their surgery," Britt told CNBC. "Ethical concerns are not really there."

In spite of the controversy, scientists insist the research is key to fueling developments in regenerative medicine.

"Stem cells have the remarkable potential to develop into many different cell types in the body during early life and growth," according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Stem research is integral to the field given the ability to renew themselves, and the way they can be induced to become tissue, or organ-specific, cells.

The regenerative process has been helped by equally rapid advances in technology, such as three-dimensional (3D) printing. Researchers are gaining ground in generating artificial organs through increasing sophistications of printers, experts say, which means the field could see another growth spurt.

"In 10 years, we could begin to see major advances toward the goal of organ engineering," said Jeff Morgan, professor of medical sciences and engineering at Brown University Center for Biomedical Engineering, who uses 3D tech to engineer tissue.