Arthritis and Stem Cells

Arthritis refers to more than 200 related joint conditions.[1] Of these, there are two main types:

  • Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune condition affecting the joints that is caused by inflammation. Patients with rheumatoid arthritis suffer from cartilage degradation because their immune system generates a faulty response. This response affects various parts of the body, such as the collagen that keeps cartilage healthy.
  • Osteoarthritis is a condition caused by the degeneration of cartilage. Cartilage is supposed to lubricate joints and ensure that bones can move over one another. In patients with osteoarthritis, cartilage becomes thinner and rougher. The bone underneath tries to repair the damage and sometimes overgrows, causing the shape of the joint to alter.

Arthritis can be acute with a sudden onset, or a chronic long-term degradation. Symptoms include severe joint pain, swelling, stiffness and redness.

Arthritis facts

  • By 2050, 130 million people will have osteoarthritis worldwide.[2]
  • 8.75 million people affected by osteoarthritis in the UK.[2]
  • 4.71 million have sought treatment for osteoarthritis of the knee in the UK.[2]
  • 400,000 adults have rheumatoid arthritis.[2]
  • 20,000 new rheumatoid arthritis cases every year.[2]
  • Osteoarthritis is the most common musculoskeletal condition in the UK.[2]
  • 1/3 of people aged above 45 suffer from osteoarthritis.[2]
  • 76% of people say arthritis pain stops them living life to the full.[3]

Arthritis and stem cells

There are 23 clinical trials studying stem cells for the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis and 104 for osteoarthritis.[4&5] 24 studies are researching the use of umbilical cord blood and tissue to treat arthritis.[6]

The Arthritis Research UK Tissue Engineering Centre is also studying the use of stem cells to rejuvenate cartilage.[7]

Most trials focus on the anti-inflammatory effect of mesenchymal stem cells, as both rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis are linked with inflammation. Stem cells can modulate the immune system to shut off pathological responses that cause this inflammation, while still preserving its ability to fight disease.

In future, it is hoped that a stem cell transplant could eliminate a patients’ need for a joint replacement by regenerating and restoring their worn-out cartilage instead.

In Panama, scientists are using cutting-edge stem cell technology to achieve this. Osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis are treated with injections of mesenchymal stem cells directly to the affected joints and there have been reports of patients recovering a full range of movement.[8]

In China, a recent study at Peking University People’s Hospital also showed that stem cell injections in lab mice reduced inflammation and improved arthritic symptoms.[9]

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