For years, Brian Cole, MD, MBA, an orthopedic surgeon at Rush University Medical Center, has used a biologic therapy called platelet-rich plasma to help patients heal after surgery, as well as to get professional athletes with muscle and ligament injuries back in the game more quickly. In fact, former Chicago Bulls player Kirk Hinrich received a series of platelet-rich plasma injections to aid his recovery from a painful thumb injury.
With this therapy, platelets from the patient's own blood are separated from red blood cells using a centrifuge; the concentrated, platelet-rich blood is then injected into the surgically repaired area. Platelets are a natural source of growth factors — healing proteins that promote the development of new soft tissue or bone cells — and introducing a super-concentrated dose of the patient's platelets into the location of an injury has been shown to help the body initiate a healing response faster than it would on its own.
"The growth factors don't do the healing; rather, they encourage the body to heal more expeditiously," says Cole.
Now, the rejuvenative powers of platelet-rich plasma are being put to a new test, as Cole and his colleagues at Rush are among those studying whether platelet-rich plasma can help patients with osteoarthritis. "The therapy will not be a cure," says Cole. "But it could help put off the day when a patient needs to get a knee replacement by reducing the symptoms — pain, swelling and impaired function — associated with osteoarthritis."
The hope is that platelet-rich plasma will offer longer-lasting symptom relief than standard palliative treatments such as corticosteroid injections or synthetic lubricants containing hyaluronic acid, as well as delay or prevent the progression of osteoarthritis. If so, it will offer new hope to patients who are trying to avoid joint replacement but whose disease is too advanced to benefit from other articular cartilage restoration techniques, such as minced cartilage implants or donor cartilage grafts.
"We believe the growth factors will help create a more harmonious environment in the knee," says Cole. "So while we can't repair the damaged cartilage, we may be able to improve the health of the knee and offer an alternative or a bridge to knee replacement surgery. And because platelet-rich plasma is administered nonsurgically and has no side effects, patients tolerate it extremely well."
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