Can stem cells cure osteoarthritis? A recent study would say ‘yes’.

The use of stem cells in orthopedics to treat osteoarthritis is growing both in America and abroad. These cells have the ability to become any kind of cell – and could potentially regenerate a new joint surface. Clinical trials are underway to explore the success of this approach.

An exciting research study in Korea extracted stem cells from fatty tissue, and after a simple process, injected these cells into knee joints with known osteoarthritis, or degenerative joint disease.

The adipose, or fat tissue, contains a higher level of stem cells than bone marrow. These cells were placed under a low-energy laser before injection to the knee.

Patients were followed up to 18 months. Results showed less pain, improvement on MRI imaging, and the ability to walk normally. Damaged cartilage appeared thicker on the imaging studies.

Most studies to date using stem cells have focused on healing small areas of cartilage, not the entire joint. Several approaches have used a ‘scaffolding’ material that can house these growing cells and encourage them to produce the right structure.
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While this was a small study group, it does bring into question the use of stem cells in the treatment of knee–and other joint–conditions.

With the limitations on stem cell use in the U.S., much of the research has been carried out overseas, where the restrictions are not as tight.

Stem cells are a hot topic in medicine today with huge potential yet face many concerns that are not yet understood. Complications of treatment are not defined at this point. While the new and sexy treatments look exciting, one must look to long term follow up to see what will happen in the years to come.