Kelly Winlock, a below-the-knee amputee, spent years trying and failing treatments to heal leg wounds, but only in the past six months has he discovered a cure with a product that uses a membrane from human placenta.
Dr. Dan Stilwell, a Durango podiatrist, has now treated 10 patients with the product, EpiFix, which uses human amnion/chorion membrane from placenta from women who have volunteered to donate their placenta after cesarean deliveries. He is convinced it is a powerful tool to help people such as Winlock who have struggled for years with chronic wounds.
Winlock, 77, a retired oil and gas worker, was forced to amputate both legs after years in the oilfields “clumping around in mud, water and chemicals in work boots” created wounds and sores that wouldn’t heal.
“I struggled with these wounds for several years,” Winlock said.
Failed treatments Winlock underwent after amputation included several skin grafts from his own body.
Key to EpiFix’s power, Stilwell said, is that the placenta membrane includes stem cells and anti-inflammatories that stimulate healing – something that wouldn’t be found in a typical skin graft.
Stilwell’s practice, Mercy Orthopedic Associates, is the only medical office in the Four Corners using EpiFix, which is gaining wider use now after first being developed in the 1990s.
The placenta, which normally would be discarded after a birth, is tested for infectious diseases, similar to tests done for blood donations. The tissue is then cleansed, dried and sterilized for use to treat chronic wounds that have failed other treatments.
“I’ve had patients who have tried different topicals, compression wraps. Nothing worked. They’ve been hospitalized many times for infections. The chief comment I get from patients is they wish they would have known about this treatment years ago,” Stilwell said.
Longstanding wounds frequently don’t heal because the body has gotten used to them and it thinks the wound is normal, a condition called chronic inflammation. Stilwell said application of the sheet of EpiFix tissue triggers the body to treat the wound as acute inflammation and that naturally stimulates healing.
“If you break a leg, the body starts healing it right away, but with a wound you’ve had for years, the body stops paying attention to it. It thinks it’s normal, and the wound doesn’t heal” Stilwell said. “Basically, the treatment leads the body to form new skin. It looks like the surrounding skin. Patients are super happy with it.”
Patients are pleased not only with the healing but the appearance of the healed wound, he said.
Stilwell has used EpiFix for about six months on 10 patients. Eight of the patients have been healed and two, including Winlock, have improved greatly and are on the road to complete healing.
Healing speed will vary, Stilwell said, depending on wound location, wound size, and a patient’s nutritional and vascular status – the health of their blood flow.
Stilwell uses the treatment in his podiatry practice, but he sees applications for it in other wound care.
Medicare will cover 100% of EpiFix treatments. Private insurance typically covers 80% of treatments, with each visit typically costing a patient between $150 and $200, Stilwell said. Medicaid does not adequately cover the costs of using EpiFix.
“It can be expensive,” he said. “But if you’ve had a leg wound for years that won’t heal, sometimes it’s worth it.”