The Center for Podiatric Care and Sports Medicine

From Horses to Humans: Are Stem Cells the Answer to Achilles Tendon Problems?

Posted by on Monday, September 14th, 2015


In 2009, a horse named “Dream Alliance” was suffering from chronic Achilles tendinopathy, a crippling condition that causes severe pain in the heel tendons.1 The horse was treated using stem cells transplanted directly to the injury site, which enabled him to recover and win the Welsh Grand National. Since horses have been treated with this revolutionary therapy, injury rates have been cut in half. The UK Stem Cell Foundation is currently conducting a human study involving 10 patients to see if stem cells will be a viable treatment in human Achilles tendon injuries over the next three to five years.2

achilles tendon injuries
Achilles tendon injuries are another potential application for stem cell therapy, with treatment on the horizon within the next 3-5 years. Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

How Can Stem Cells Help an Achilles Tendon Injury Heal?

The first primate embryonic stem cells were maintained in culture in 1995.3 Stem cells are unique in that they have not yet differentiated — meaning that they could become a skin, muscle, nerve, any other type of cell — and they have been found to have tremendous self-renewing capacity.

Human stem cell derivation from in vitro-fertilized blastocytes began in 1998. Initially, the use of stem cells was somewhat controversial, as many original samples came from medically-terminated pregnancies, but modern stem cells are often obtained from cloning procedures, umbilical cord blood, or adult bone marrow and fat.

Currently, stem cells are used in medicine to help the blind see and facilitate cancer patient recovery following chemotherapy.4 Researchers are currently looking into sports medicine applications to repair damaged bone, cartilage, and tendons, especially Achilles tendons. Since stem cell treatment of Achilles problems has been successful in horses, researchers are excited about the possibility of their use in human Achilles injuries.

Achilles tendon injuries are common, especially in athletes, and treatment methods are limited. Surgery is necessary in many cases, especially for those with severe or chronic Achilles injuries. Recovery from an Achilles tendon injury is lengthy, usually around 6 months at the shortest. It often takes a year for patients to recover completely using traditional methods of treatment, and those who have had Achilles injuries before are prone to re-rupture.

Stem Cell Therapy Case Study

The Center for Podiatric Care and Sports Medicine is on top of all the latest trends in sports injury rehabilitation. Though it’s a relatively new frontier, stem cell success stories are pouring in, and they have caught our attention. For instance, Biologic Therapies, Inc. published a case study in the Official Journal of The Cure Alliance reporting that stem cell therapy helped a 56-year-old tennis player and recreational athlete overcome her chronic Achilles tendon injury.5

Previously, the patient was unable to be on her feet for longer than 30 minutes at a time and suffered significant pain even while relaxing. She had been through all the standard stretching and anti-inflammatory drug treatments over a period of 10 years, to no avail, but did not want to endure surgery. Instead, her physician drew bone marrow from her shin bone, concentrated the stem cells and growth factors by spinning it in a centrifuge, anesthetized the area and injected the therapeutic stem cells at the site of injury.

After six weeks, the woman reported no pain while resting and only minimal pain when walking. At eight weeks, she felt significantly better. At 10 weeks, MRI scans revealed significant reduction in the scope of the patient’s injury. Near complete healing was achieved at 32 weeks.

Stem Cell Sutures Used in Surgery

Among surgery patients, sutures embedded with stem cells enable stronger and faster healing of Achilles injuries, according to a study published in the March 2014 issue of Foot & Ankle International.6 This is welcome news for patients who had previously been required to keep their legs immobilized during rehabilitation or risk tendon re-rupture. The studies were conducted on rats, but researchers called their findings “exciting news” because “the stem cells stayed in the tendon, promoting healing right away, during a time when patients are not able to begin aggressive rehabilitation.” The stem cells helped avoid atrophy and encouraged improved healing on a cellular level that led to significantly stronger tendons just four weeks after surgery.

Stem Cell Therapy and Platelet Rich Plasma in NYC

The Center for Podiatric Care and Sports Medicine in NYC routinely employs injection therapy (such as biopuncture or platelet rich plasma) in the treatment of sports injuries. Difficult-to-treat Achilles tendon injuries respond particularly well to these therapies. Of course, not all injections are created equal. Cortisone, for instance, has been found to actually weaken the Achilles tendon and make matters worse. That’s why it’s so important to see a sports medicine specialist with extensive knowledge of these newer treatment options.  If you live in or near Manhattan or Westchester, NY, contact us to discuss your option for advanced, non-invasive Achilles tendon treatment.






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If you have any foot problems or pain, contact The Center for Podiatric Care and Sports MedicineDr. Josef J. GeldwertDr. Katherine Lai, Dr. Ryan Minara and Dr. Mariola Rivera have helped thousands of people get back on their feet. Unfortunately, we cannot give diagnoses or treatment advice online. Please make an appointment to see us if you live in the NY metropolitan area or seek out a podiatrist in your area.