By Maria Medina

PALO ALTO (KPIX 5) — A groundbreaking approach to treating knee injuries is about to be tested at a Bay Area hospital, using the patient’s own stem cells.

The knee – the largest joint in the human body – needs cartilage to keep it running smoothly. It’s the quintessential shock absorber for the body.

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However, whether you’re a high performance athlete or a weekend warrior, a nick or tear in that cartilage can be debilitating and the knee pain can be unimaginable.

“It’s hard to get out of bed, it’s hard to take a shower, it’s hard to put on your clothes the day to day activities, that you don’t even think about,” said runner Dale Whitmer.

Early next year, the orthopedic surgeon Dr. Jason Dragoo and his team at Stanford University Hospital will test a new approach to fixing those cracks, or potholes, in knee cartilage. The repair material: adult stem cells that are harvested from the patient’s own body.

“In 2016 it’s here. It’s here for human use and it’s a long time coming,” said Dragoo. “This is tapping into the regenerative potential that everyone has.”

Under the right conditions, adult stem cells can transform into cartilage. The hope is that those in the study turn into cartilage and fix the problem.

During a recent surgery, Dragoo showed KPIX 5 just how easy it is to retrieve the stem cells, which are found in a fatty area of the knee.

“Regardless of how thin or not we are, we always have a fat pad which is this resource of cells within everyone’s knees and that’s why we’re using those cells in this type of surgery,” he explained.

Using small incisions and minimally-invasive tools, the surgeons harvest the fat. Using a special technique with a double-ended open syringe, the harvested fluid is pushed back and forth and gently broken up.

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The motion releases the stem cells from the fat. The mix then goes into a centrifuge. When the container comes out, the stem cells are concentrated at the top and bottom of the tube.

During next year’s clinical trials, the cells will be injected immediately back into the patient’s knee. The cells never leave the operating room. That means the patient only undergoes one day of surgery; reducing the risk of infection, complications, and inconvenience.

Dragoo estimates the entire procedure will take one to one-and-a-half hours.

Also, with these harvested stem cells, there are no enzymes or special chemicals added. Some foreign countries do include such additives and the practice is largely unregulated, explained Dragoo.

Lab research shows the procedure works. “The good news is that it takes around six weeks for the cells to turn into initial cartilage cells,” said Dragoo.

Now it’s time to test out the procedure in a clinical trial involving humans. As for Dale Whitmer, he is trying to take care of his knees.

“I try to take it easy and not run too far.” said Whitmer.

He’s had problems with one leg that he fractured, as well as his knees for years. But he loves to run and exercise.

He likes the idea of tapping into his own body for repairs.

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“If you use natural tissues form our own body your body is not going to be able to reject it as easily as if it’s already grown inside of you. I think it’s a great idea,” said Whitmer.