By Wes O’Donnell
Veteran, U.S. Army and Air Force. Managing Editor, In Military and InCyberDefense.
Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) is a wound in which an external force, such as a nearby explosion, causes the brain to move within the head and be damaged. With enough force, this movement can disrupt normal brain function, leading to a loss of consciousness or a feeling of being dazed and confused.
Perhaps most alarming to servicemembers and their families is that the effects of TBI can last many years. In the United States, 320,000 troops suffered from TBI between 2010 and 2015; even a mild case of TBI puts veterans at an increased risk of developing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
For its part, Veterans Affairs is making strides in the areas of TBI treatment. It has focused mainly on medications and rehabilitation therapies such as physical therapy, occupational therapy, and speech-language therapy.
However, there is a fascinating new treatment that leverages the cutting-edge field of adult stem cells. Stem cells are a type of unspecialized cell that can develop into many different cell types.
Physician Says that Stem Cell Therapy for TBI Has Yet to Gain Acceptance in the US
In Military reached out to a physician in New Jersey who has experience in the field of stem cells.
According to Dr. Hardik Soni of the Ethos Spa, the goal of treatment for traumatic brain injury (TBI) is to promote recovery from physical, cognitive and emotional problems caused by the injury. The use of a patient’s stem cells has become a novel and promising method of treating TBI.
The treatment revolves around the use of bone marrow-derived modified stem cells as repair agents. A highly specialized, minimally invasive neurosurgery procedure delivers those stem cells to the injury site in order to resolve and reverse symptoms such as the inability of a patient to move the arms or legs. At the injury site in patients with TBI, stem cells secrete growth factors that improve healing.
Although various studies have confirmed the potential of stem cells in the treatment of TBI, the stem cell-based therapies are not exactly authorized in the U.S. In fact, the FDA has closed multiple clinics with stem cell-related therapies.
In addition, treatments with stem cells are still in their development phases and many of them haven’t been tested in a clinical setting. Various safety concerns are involved, such as:
- The growth of tumors
- Administration site reactions
- Failure of the stem cells to work as expected
- The ability of cells to move from the placement site, change into inappropriate types of cells and multiply
One Veteran’s Experience with Stem Cell Treatment Provides Hope for TBI Sufferers
But what about a veteran who has recently undergone a stem cell procedure? I had the good fortune to meet Patti Katter, a military wife whose husband, Ken Katter, was injured in combat. Patti is also an accomplished author, a podcast host and a bold leader in the military and veteran community.
Wes O’Donnell: Patti, thanks for taking the time to answer a few questions. I know from following you on social media that you recently traveled overseas with Ken to have this procedure performed. When did you first hear about stem cell therapy for TBI?
Patti Katter: My friend, Travis Wilson, made a post on his Instagram of himself holding his own stem cells. I thought it was a weird Jell-O shot at first, so it caught my attention. I then read that he just had stem cell therapy for his TBI, which piqued my interest because my husband has TBI.
I sent him a private message asking him for more information and then ended up talking with him on the phone about it. Travis told me where we could put in Ken’s application, we did it and Ken was chosen as the 13th veteran that the organization Time for a Hero sent for stem cell therapy.
Wes: Can you explain the actual process of using Ken’s own stem cells?
Patti: The doctors took adipose (fat) from Ken’s stomach via liposuction and gathered the stem cells from that.
Wes: It sounds like this procedure holds a lot of promise. Why do you think it’s not approved in the United States yet?
Patti: Honestly, I’m not sure. Maybe because pharmaceutical companies would lose money or maybe because there’s just not enough studies yet.
Wes: Has Ken had any side effects that you’ve noticed since the procedure?
Patti: No. None.
Wes: How about cognitive improvements? What has been your experience?
Patti: It will take about six months to a year for Ken to start seeing differences from the stem cell therapy. Cognitively, he’s remaining stable — which is our main goal for now. He’s really working hard every day to exercise his brain.
Wes: I’m always interested in any alternatives to pharmaceuticals to treat our veterans. That’s why I was excited that you publicized Ken’s procedure as it was happening. Are there any follow-up procedures or was it that one time and done?
Patti: He may have further treatments in the future.
Wes: What was the cost of the procedure?
Patti: I believe typically it’s about $30,000 per person. However, Time for a Hero covers the cost of the transportation, lodging and procedure.
Wes: If either veterans or caregivers are interested in learning more information, where would you send them?
Patti: They can go to timeforahero.org.
TBIs Have Become the Signature Wound of Today’s Military
Like Agent Orange in the Vietnam era, TBI has become the signature wound of the War on Terror. Stem cell therapy, even in its early stages, has shown a remarkable level of success for veterans who have undergone the treatment.
The veteran community must be vocal about supporting clinical trials stateside, so that this promising procedure can be performed at home rather than abroad.
The full treatment protocol is a fascinating read and can be found on the treatment page at the nonprofit Time for A Hero.
With increased awareness, we can make strides toward shifting TBI from a lifelong condition to one that can be cured. The goal of every warfighter is to return home to a normal life after their time in the military ends. TBI makes that a very difficult goal to achieve.
But perhaps stem cell therapy’s most important contribution is not medical at all; it has provided hope to thousands of suffering veterans. And hope is a powerful thing.