Can stem cells be used to repair knees, hips, and joints?
Stem Cells For Osteoarthritis
Many clinicians have used stem cells for osteoarthritis of the knee or other joints for some time. However, objective publications about the effectiveness of stem cells are only coming out now. Both stem cell types, derived from fat or stem cells from the bone marrow, are effective. Most doctors are using stem cells from fat (mesenchymal stem cells), because they are so much easier to harvest.
CNN reported about a man, Bill Marlette who had lost one of his arms in the past. He ended up overusing the other arm and as a result developed end-stage osteoarthritis in his wrist. He could not find relief with conventional methods of anti-inflammatories and pain pills. Next he went to a stem cell expert in Munich, Germany who treated him with mesenchymal stem cells from his fatty tissue. Only one treatment took away his chronic pain and helped him regain his wrist mobility.
Approval of stem cell therapy in Germany
Prof. Dr. Eckhard Alt, an expert in regenerative medicine has previously treated patients with end stage osteoarthritis and had good clinical outcomes with it. As a result the German regulatory agency has approved his treatment protocol.
Dr. David Pearce, executive vice president for research at Sanford Health in South Dakota said that Prof. Dr. Eckhard Alt was the first one to use fat cells as a source of mesenchymal stem cells to treat osteoarthritis. He went on to say: ”Those stem cells don’t have to be programmed in any way, but if you put them in the right environment, they will naturally turn into what the cell type around them is.” The physician harvests the stem cells through liposuction. An enzyme mixture is necessary to separate the stem cells from fat cells, oil and connective tissue. A cell separator can also help separating the stem cells from the rest of the cells and tissue.
A case of wrist osteoarthritis
As I mentioned before only one injection was necessary to relieve the chronic pain of Bill Marlette’s wrist. Since his return the doctors in the US have followed Bill closely. They took MRI scans and noted that the bony cysts associated with the severe arthritis have disappeared. His wrist and hand strength have returned to normal. The pain almost disappeared. There were no side effects whatsoever. Because the stem cells are of the same tissue type as all his other cells of his body, one would not expect any tissue rejection by the immune system. Bill Marlette did not need any pain pills following the procedure in August 2016. And he says: “I have more range of motion with my wrist, shaking hands didn’t hurt anymore,” he said. “My wrist seems to continue to improve, and there’s less and less pain all the time.”
Past experiences treating osteoarthritis with mesenchymal stem cells
A 2014 clinical trial from Korea involved 18 patients with osteoarthritis of the knee where adipose mesenchymal stem cells were injected. The high dose group did best. After 6 months there was significant improvement, also confirmed by arthroscopy. The previous cartilage defect in the femoral and tibial condyles had decreased in size. Range of motion in the knee joints and pain had also improved. There were no adverse effects from the treatment.
Mesenchymal progenitor cells have the propensity to develop into cartilage. At the Shanghai Medical College, Fudan University Shanghai, China the following experiment took place in 2015. The researchers grew human adipose mesenchymal cells in vitro. Later they injected these mesenchymal progenitor cells into the knees of rabbits with experimentally produced osteoarthritis. Despite doing xenotransplants (human cartilage to rabbits) with known HLA differences the cartilage grew and cured the osteoarthritis of the rabbits. The new cartilage had human HLA markers while the rabbit cartilage underneath had rabbit HLA markers. At 16 weeks the researchers examined the tissues under the microscope and another exam involved the HLA marker testing.
A study from Tehran, Iran was carried out on 18 patients with ankle, knee and hip osteoarthritis in 2015. Physicians injected stem cells from the bone marrow into the osteoarthritic joint. The doctors followed the patients and ordered occasional MRI scans for 30 months. All of the patients had improved significantly with regard to their joint function and pain. The MRI scans also showed thickening of the joint surfaces from new cartilage production.
In a 2016 joint French/German study 18 patients with end stage knee osteoarthritis were treated with stem cells. The stem cells came from adipose tissue that went through a cell separator. Physicians injected the mesenchymal stem cell fraction into the osteoarthritic knees. This was a phase I study to rule out any adverse reactions, but none were evident. It also established that there were significant positive improvements in pain and mobility with regard to the affected knees.
General remarks about how stem cells heal osteoarthritis
The example above with end stage osteoarthritis of the wrist was just one example of where osteoarthritis can strike. Perhaps the more common other locations are hips, knees and the facet joints of the lower lumbar spine (causing chronic lower back pain).
The same treatment procedure, which Bill Marlette’s wrist benefitted from is useful for all these other locations. The common factor in osteoarthritis is that the cartilage is getting thinner and thinner until bone rubs on bone causing excruciating pain. It is here where mesenchymal cells can come to the rescue. The stem cells will assess what requires a repair after injection into an affected joint. They recognize that there is a lack of cartilage. Then they transform themselves into chondrocytes, which are cartilage-forming cells. How can stem cells do that? They come with a program to replace missing cells, particularly cartilage and bone cells. But if they are within fatty tissue, they cannot act within a joint that has osteoarthritis. The doctor has to transport the mesenchymal cells into the joint where they can then begin their healing function.
Other methods to treat osteoarthritis
Stem cells are only one of several regenerative treatment modalities for osteoarthritis. Another method are platelet-rich plasma (PRP) injections. Platelets have a lot of anti-inflammatory substances in them and also growth factors that can stimulate stem cells contained in the synovial membrane, the lining of any joint. To get PRP plasma, it is necessary to spin down blood and harvest the PRP fraction with a syringe. After three PRP injections were given into the knees of 90 patients with end stage osteoarthritis these patients were followed for two years.
In the beginning before treatment 100% of the patients had symptoms. After one year following the treatment with PRP their knee functions were normal in 67% of them. After two years only 59% had normal knee function. The investigators pointed out that this treatment modality initially helped to a certain point, but then the effects were slowly fading away.
Stem cell treatment of osteoarthritis of the knee
The literature on either bone stem cells or fat stem cell use for osteoarthritis of the knee in man is still sparse. Nobody has done larger clinical trials. Part of the reasons could be that total knee and total hip replacement in orthopedics is very lucrative. We are still in a symptomatic treatment mode. Physicians treat osteoarthritis conservatively with anti-inflammatories and pain pills. When bone rubs on bone, there can be excruciating pain. The physician refers the patient to an orthopedic surgeon who likely will do invasive surgical procedures. My own impression in general practice in the past is that these procedures do not always turn out the way they are supposed to work. Following total hip or knee replacement joint swelling often remains; pain issues are still there. There can be unequal height issues, balancing problems and so on.
Here is a review of mesenchymal stem cell therapy for osteoarthritis. This publication is very conventional medicine. An attitude change by conventional medicine would be useful to catch up with what is happening in real life. Some patients will travel abroad to Munich as Bill Marlette did. But others may travel to other places like India, Mexico or wherever medical tourism takes you. Regenerative medicine is there to stay.
Stem Cells For Osteoarthritis