John Trautman was 69, retired and struggling to bicycle on one good knee from replacement surgery. The other knee, his left, was inflamed with osteoarthritis.

A neighbor suggested he try an experimental treatment. The neighbor, renowned San Antonio plastic surgeon Jaime Garza, described an innovative procedure: harvesting fat from Trautman’s body, removing stem cells from the fat and injecting the stem cells back into the arthritic knee.

Would Trautman like to be his first patient? A national Institutional Review Board (IRB) had authorized Garza to perform a safety trial on select patients in San Antonio.

Three years ago, Trautman underwent a two-hour procedure, walked out of Garza’s clinic and drove home. “That’s the best two hours I’ve spent in a long time,” said Trautman, 72, the former director of marketing for Ford Motor Co. in Europe. “Within 10 days to two weeks, I began to feel relief. Within 60-90 days, I felt 75% better. I didn’t have any pain or stiffness in the morning. To this day, it’s better.”

That IRB stem cell safety trial was published by Garza and his team and has evolved into an FDA-approved trial with patients at Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia, Cooper Medical School in Camden, N.J. and Texas Plastic Surgery in San Antonio. Unlike the safety trial, the FDA trial is performed blindly. Neither patients nor doctors know whether the injection contains low dose stem cells, high dose stem cells or a placebo.

From the safety trial, though, Garza was able to track patients’ progress. The results were promising. “The initial cohort we had showed tremendous pain relief and an increase in mobility,” said Garza, 62. “Of the 10 patients we did in the safety trial, three came back to get an injection as part of this trial. They had a wonderful three years. The others said, ‘I’m fine.’”

A sports medical doctor injects cells into the knee using ultrasound.
A sports medical doctor injects cells into the knee using ultrasound. Credit: Courtesy / Jaime R. Garza

The FDA-approved stem cell trial represents the latest medical adventure in a multi-faceted career for Garza, a professor, scientist, writer, motivational speaker, clinical researcher, former chairman of the Texas State University System Board of Regents, and long ago football star. Once a practicing dentist, Garza is a triple board-certified surgeon and best known for his work in plastic surgery.

The GID Group, Inc., a consortium of plastic surgeons, tissue scientists and entrepreneurial managers, designed and built the technology that separates stromal vascular cells and stem cells from harvested fat. GID CEO William Cimino chose Garza’s clinic to participate in the FDA trial.

“I selected Jaime’s clinic based on his strong ability to organize and execute on a level required for such a clinical trial,” Cimino said. “And for his excellent reputation for patient care as a surgeon.”

Garza provides oversight of the stem cell trial at his clinic and serves as the principal investigator. One board-certified member of his team harvests fat from patients. Another board-certified physician injects stems cells into the knee.

“At every point, we have a specialist taking care of patients,” Garza said. “I’m responsible to make sure everybody is following the protocol, to make sure we’re following all safety and FDA standards. I make sure the paperwork is done appropriately and follow up is being completed. There is no cutting corners.”

A prototype of the device that will separate the patient's fat and cells.
A prototype of the device that will separate the patient’s fat and cells. Credit: Kathryn Boyd-Batstone / San Antonio Report

A little more than a dozen patients are participating at Garza’s clinic. Most are recreational athletes, golfers, walkers, and tennis players, 25 years old and up. Not every  prospective patient qualified for the trial. Those who had received a steroid injection in a knee within the past three months were disqualified. Others were not admitted because they were too physically fit.

“Some patients did not qualify because they did not have enough fat,” Garza said. “We need to get at least a stick of butter of fat.”

John Trautman barely had enough fat to harvest. He came to Garza as a bicyclist, walker, and Pilates instructor.  “We had a tough time getting fat out of him,” said Garza, who found just enough to harvest from Trautman’s side. “He’s three-and-a-half years out from the procedure and he says, ‘You changed my life.’”

Garza has his own knee story. An All-City receiver at Jefferson High School in 1971, Garza also starred at Tulane University, breaking almost every receiving record. Midway through his senior season, he suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee.

It happened against West Virginia in Morgantown in 1975. As Garza sprinted down the left sideline, his quarterback under threw him. “I slowed down to come back for the ball,” he said. “My right leg was planted on the ground and the defensive back laid on the outside of my knee.”

A machine used for processing the cells out of the patient’s fat tissue.
A machine used for processing the cells out of the patient’s fat tissue. Credit: Courtesy / Jaime R. Garza

He limped through the rest of the season. “They would tape me up, inject me and I’d play,” he said. “I’d be on crutches until Wednesday or Thursday. The next day I’d loosen up and run. Saturday I’d play. And Sunday I was back in the ice tub. It was a brutal six weeks of my senior year.”

The torn ligament – and a severe concussion in training camp with the New Orleans Saints – perhaps cost him a career in the NFL. “I never had the ACL repaired,” Garza said. “So I’ve got knee problems.”

More than 40 years later, Garza remains active, playing tennis. But he wishes he could have signed up for his own stem cell treatment. “I wanted to get in the safety trial,” he said. “But I didn’t meet the criteria. One is you can’t be the principal investigator.”

When his football career ended, Garza completed dental school and medical school. His expertise as a plastic surgeon, clinical researcher, and medical innovator are known around the world. At a conference in Amsterdam two months ago, Garza served as the keynote speaker. The topic: “Establishing a Musculoskeletal Regenerative Clinic in the United States.”

Back in San Antonio, Garza’s regenerative clinic is working on a stem cell trial that could change the way doctors treat osteoarthritic knees.

“I’m blessed to be involved in this work,” he said. “I hope it brings a lot of attention to San Antonio. We’re on the cutting edge.”

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Ken Rodriguez

Ken Rodriguez is a San Antonio native and award-winning journalist.