Osteoarthritis is the most common form of arthritis. In fact, when people casually use the term “arthritis” or think of the arthritis of old-age, they are usually talking about osteoarthritis. People with arthritis experience many symptoms in and around the affected joints including pain and swelling. The affected joints may become unstable or “give out.” At the same time, people who suffer from osteoarthritis may not be able to move their joints fully or smoothly. Commonly people feel that their joints are “stiff.”
Early in osteoarthritis, the pain may just occur occasionally. Perhaps, the person feels sharp pain when moving a certain way. In later stages of osteoarthritis, the affected joints constantly ache, and moving the joint becomes intensely painful.
Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs or NSAIDs can help in some cases, but they become less effective as osteoarthritis becomes more severe. Often people with osteoarthritis must receive injections of anesthetics and steroids into the joints itself. Ultimately, patients often need orthopedic surgery to grind away diseased joint tissue or even replace the joint with the artificial one.
Researchers are searching for ways to reverse osteoarthritis instead of just treating the symptoms. Fortunately, stem cells may offer hope. Doctors have long known that in people with osteoarthritis, the cartilage becomes thin and breaks down. Joint cartilage lubricates the joint, acts as a shock absorber, and helps the joint move smoothly. When cartilage breaks down, the joint becomes stiff, painful, and irritated. As recent research suggests, mesenchymal stem cells may rebuild and restore joint cartilage.
Two scientists, Kristjánsson and Honsawek, recently reviewed the state of the research in this field. They identified eight clinical studies that tested mesenchymal stem cells on patients with varying degrees of osteoarthritis. The clinical trials demonstrated several intriguing findings. Most notably, mesenchymal stem cells were able to promote cartilage regeneration, reduce pain, and improve joint function. The scientists also found that the more stem cells that were injected, the better the outcome. In addition, the beneficial effect of stem cells occurred whether the cells were taken from the patient (autologous stem cells) or from young, healthy donors (allogenic stem cells).
Importantly, patients with mild to moderate osteoarthritis enjoy the greatest apparent benefit from stem cell injections. This suggests that doctors and patients should consider stem cell treatment earlier in the course of osteoarthritis before joints become too damaged and likely require surgery.
Mesenchymal stem cell injection for osteoarthritis has now been tested in at least eight clinical studies including randomized clinical trials, which are the gold standard studies for evaluating treatments in medicine. Research is ongoing and still needed but these results are strongly encouraging. They may offer, for the first time, a way for patients to reverse the changes of osteoarthritis rather than simply treating the symptoms of the disease.
Reference: Kristjánsson et al. (2017). Mesenchymal stem cells for cartilage regeneration in osteoarthritis. World Journal of Orthopedics. 2017 Sep 18; 8(9): 674–680.