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Sanford to detail its extensive medical research at Vatican conference

Dr. David Pearce, executive vice president of Sanford Research. Submitted photo

FARGO—A 12-member delegation from Sanford Health is making a journey to Vatican City this week for a major healthcare conference that is emphasizing cutting-edge technology as researchers from around the world close in on new treatments and possible cures for a number of diseases and health issues.

To many Sanford Health patients, it's all about the hospitals or clinics in their communities. However, the regional healthcare organization also has a huge research operation unknown to many that is currently running about 300 clinical trials on everything from curing Type 1 diabetes to repairing shoulder injuries with stem cells.

This year, Sanford was invited to make six presentations at the conference starting Thursday, April 26 and running through the weekend.

That's an impressive number as the biennial conference called "Unite to Cure" attracts some of the "brightest minds" and top researchers in the world to discuss their studies, as well as some celebrities who moderate panel discussions such as CNN's Dr. Sanjay Gupta, TV personality Dr. Mehmet Oz, television host Meredith Vieira and even Pope Francis himself, according to executive vice president of Sanford Research Dr. David Pearce.

About 300 people have been invited to the conference.

One of the main presentations by Sanford will be from Dr. Mark Lundeen, an orthopedic surgeon in Fargo, and his co-principal investigator, Dr. Jason Hurd of Sioux Falls, who are working on research into whether adult stem cells derived from fat tissue in the stomach can repair minor tears in shoulder rotator cuffs.

It's a common affliction that sends an estimated 6 million Americans for surgical repairs by orthopedic surgeons every year.

In an interview before hopping on the plane to Italy, Lundeen said they will be reporting that a clinical trial that started about a year ago is showing there are "absolutely no safety issues" as a result of the 12 patients from North Dakota and South Dakota who received the stem cells in their small shoulder tears and that they are "cautiously optimistic" that the tears will heal as MRIs on some of the patients are currently showing.

Six other people in the trial received a cortisone shot as a "placebo" as that is one of the current treatments for the tears.

The stem cell injections were guided by ultrasound scanners, enabling surgeons to pinpoint the injury.

Lundeen said he will also tell the conference that about plans to launch a multi-research center study of 200 patients nationwide this summer in what is called a "pivotal study" where proof in numbers can lead to publication of the study results and the implementation of the new healing method in hospitals.

In yet another announcement, Lundeen said they will reveal that they plan to start studies this summer in using stem cells to repair small joints in the lower back and also to help cure wrist arthritis. If the trials are successful, stems cells derived from fat tissue could be used for a wide range of tissue repairs. Already, a study is underway to use stem cells to repair knee cartilage injuries.

The Fargo doctor thinks it's important that such discussions about stem cell work, also called biologics, take place at a Vatican conference because of the controversy over the use of embryo stem cells and the opposition to such use in many circles. He noted the trials they are doing are all from adult stem cells.

"Stem cells exist everywhere. Every organ has small vessels where the stem cells can be found in the lining," Lundeen said. "We can harvest them from fat tissue, bone marrow and umbilical cords."

He said more studies are being done on which type of stem cells are most beneficial.

"I can't tell you how proud I am of Sanford and its leadership role in addressing stem cell research," Lundeen said.

In other presentations, Pearce said president and CEO of Sanford Health Kelby Krabbenhoft will talk on the future of healthcare systems, Dr. Steven Herrmann will talk about genetic testing, Dr. Jill Weimer on advancements in treating rare diseases, and chief global brand officer Micah Aberson on Sanford's Lorraine Cross Award.

The $1 million award will be given in December to a nominee that directly or indirectly has contributed the most to someone passionate about curing patients of disease, said Pearce.

"It's kind of like the Nobel Peace Prize," Pearce said, noting that it's one of the top five most lucrative medical research awards in the world.