DALLAS — Five months ago, 37-year-old Chris Youngman couldn't touch his toes because of back pain.
"I couldn't hardly bend down and put on my shoes or socks before on a daily basis," he said, adding that the pain made his job as a firefighter more than challenging.
After years of suffering, Youngman healed himself — sort of — with the help of Forest Park Medical Center neurosurgeon Rob Dickerman.
Dr. Dickerman is using an innovative and controversial technique for spinal fusion which uses a patient's own stem cells to grow new bone.
Texas governor and presidential candidate Rick Perry made medical news this month after announcing he had undergone a stem cell treatment during back surgery. The procedure was similar in that it uses a patient's own stem cells, which are different from embryonic stem cells. Perry opposes the use of embryonic stem cells.
Previously, doctors used cadaver bone or took a painful portion of a patient's own hip for spinal fusions.
"Well, now we don't need to take a chunk of your hip," Dr. Dickerman said. "Now, with technology, we can pull the bone marrow directly from the hip, concentrate it to get more stem cells, put it inside of a cage to hold it, then it does its job."
The less invasive procedure happens inside the operating room where stem cells are extracted from the hip with a long needle. Only a bandage is needed afterward.
The cells are then condensed in a centrifuge. The process takes only minutes.
Those rich cells are mixed into a putty and stuffed into small containers called "cages." The cages are inserted between degenerating discs during the same operating room procedure. The stem cell mixture is what transforms into bone.
"It's like a cinder block that you build houses on, and you pack concrete inside the cinder block," Dr. Dickerman explained. "We're packing stem cells inside this cage and then it grows from bone to bone through the cage."
Before stem cells, doctors used BMP, bone morphogenic protein, to induce bone growth. BMP is now being investigated for a possible connection to cancer.
"I'm using your bone to grow your bone, so there's nothing really any safer," Dr. Dickerman said.
With traditional spinal fusion, the physician said it may take a year or more for patients to regenerate bone. Dickerman is seeing high rates of success in half the time, though the technique is considered controversial and is not yet FDA-approved. Stem cells are currently only FDA approved for bone marrow transplants.
Four months after his surgery, Chris Youngman's spine is solidly fused. He's working out again, pain-free, able to tie his own shoes, and ready for full duty again as a firefighter.