Health A to Z

Women's Health: Stem cell injections help women overcome incontinence

Canadian pilot study shows encouraging results and suggests the procedure is safe

Injecting stem cells from a woman’s own muscles is a promising new treatment for urinary incontinence, according to the results of a small Canadian study.

The process could potentially be a less intrusive and side-effect-prone alternative to currently used procedures, such as surgery and collagen injections.

The study was mainly meant to show the injections are safe and feasible, although the efficacy results were also encouraging. Eight women, ages 41 to 66, with stress urinary incontinence received the treatment at the Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto. Stress incontinence is a loss of urine that occurs during physical activity, such as coughing, sneezing, laughing or exercise. It occurs when the muscles that control urination become weakened.

In the treatment, the researchers took a small amount of thigh muscle from each woman and sent the samples to a processing centre in Pittsburgh where stem cells — which have the potential to form new muscle — were isolated from the tissue. Four weeks later, doctors injected the stem cells around the women’s urethra using local anesthetic.

“There were no adverse effects noted and . . . we were pleasantly surprised that five out of eight women showed improvement, including one who was totally continent after a single injection,” says Dr. Lesley Carr, the lead study author and a urologist at Sunnybrook.

Carr says it took three to eight months for the women to notice an improvement, a delay that probably indicates the stem cells needed to divide and form new muscle before having an effect.

A larger Canadian trial is now underway to determine the appropriate number of cells to be injected.