South African rugby icon, Joost van der Westhuizen, is undergoing experimental stem cell therapy in order to regenerate and repair damaged tissue and to assist with impaired muscle functioning. It is the first time that this kind of treatment is being tried in South Africa.
Van der Westhuizen was diagnosed with ALS, a form of Motor Neuron Disease (MND), over two months ago. ALS is unfortunately a life-threatening neurodegenerative condition with an 80% mortality rate over a period of two to five years.
According to his Specialist Neurologist, Dr Jody Pearl, Van der Westhuizen’s diagnosis of ALS was confirmed at Cleveland Clinic’s Neuromuscular Unit in Ohio, United States, in July 2011, by one of the world’s leading experts in this condition.
Pearl said: “At this point treatment options are limited and essentially restricted to palliative and supportive therapy. Therefore Joost decided, with the support of his doctors and South African Rugby Legends Association President, Gavin Varejes, to opt for stem cell treatment.”
The aim of the therapy is to regenerate and repair damaged muscle tissue and hopefully delay further degeneration of his muscle function.
How Joost's treatment began
Van der Westhuizen recently underwent a minor surgical procedure during which his fat tissue was collected by Dr Vernon Ching and Dr Tim Christofides at the new Netcare Waterfall City Hospital in Midrand. The medical team used a specialised technique to ensure that the fat contained the maximum amount of stem cells.
This fat was then sent to the stem cell laboratory at Netcells Cryogenics where the mesenchymal stem cells were carefully isolated.
A therapeutic product was then prepared using a patented technique. Drs Ching and Christofides later administered this both intra]muscularly and intravenously to Van der Westhuizen.
It is a completely safe procedure as Van der Westhuizen’s own stem cells have been used in preparing the therapeutic and no synthetic agents were used in the process. This is known as cell]free therapy as the whole stem cell is not transplanted.
The techniques used by Netcells were developed by Dr Steve Ray, a UK Neuro]Scientist who has been researching stem cells for more than 20 years.
First of it's kind in SA
Kim Hulett, Managing Director of Netcells, said that this is the first treatment of its kind in South Africa. “We are humbled that we are able to offer this type of cutting]edge technology to Joost, and, while he travelled to the United States for the latest in MND testing and research, he is able to receive this treatment right here at home. Joost is pleased to be raising awareness about neuro]degenerative diseases and potential treatment options.”
Netcells Medical Director, Dr Yvonne Holt says that mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs) are being employed in both research and clinical environments for a variety of aesthetic and medical conditions that include skin regeneration (wound healing and scar remodeling, skin pigmentation disorders); neurology (nerve regeneration and repair); orthopedics (cartilage, bone repair); sports injury (tendon, ligament repair); cardiology (heart muscle regeneration); reconstructive surgery (fat autografts); and many other clinical areas.
Dr Holt points out that the use of mesenchymal stem cells in the treatment of Van der Westhuizen is experimental. “The efficacy of Joost’s treatment will be closely monitored by his medical team through a range of clinical tests, together with similar cases in Europe.” - (Netcells Cryogenics, August 2011)
What is motor neuron disease?