FARGO — Lindsey Leach has had osteoarthritis in her knee for the past five years, and while its severity can vary, it hasn't always been easy.

"I have good days and bad days. Some days I'm very, very stiff (and) I have a lot of significant pain," she explained.

Leach is the first patient at Sanford in Fargo to participate in the MILES Study, a national research project exploring the use of adult stem cells to treat osteoarthritis of the knee.

Sanford Research is taking part in a nearly $14 million effort by Emory University, Duke University and the Andrews Research Education Foundation to identify a superior source of stem cells for treating conditions like Leach's.

Leach is one of 120 patients in Fargo and Sioux Falls participating in the randomized single-blind trials. A total of 480 patients are participating in the study across the U.S.

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Sanford orthopedic surgeon Dr. Benjamin Noonan explains that the researchers are studying three different types of stem cells: One derived from a patient's own bone marrow, another using fat and a third from donated umbilical cord tissue. Researchers aim to see if the stem cells can make patients feel less pain or regrow cartilage in their knees.

"We draw these cells out. We have a lab downstairs where we count them (and) we send them off to be characterized so we're going to know exactly what we're giving," Noonan explains.

The most important part of this study, Noonan said, is that patients don't know if they're getting an injection of stem cells or an injection of cortisone.

"People expect it to work, so you have to separate the expectation because the mind is extremely powerful and if you think you're going to get better, you will feel better,” Noonan said. “To answer the question ‘do they work?’ we have to take that out."

The question of whether the treatment works and which type of stem cells work best is something researchers will answer when they publish their study in three years.

On Sept. 27, Leach was at her one-month check-up since participating in the bone marrow segment of the study and she said she feels like she expected to.

"If these are stem cells and they regenerate (tissue), maybe it'll be a long-term solution,” she said.