Experts are researching ways to use stem cells to treat arthritis in the knee and other joints. Many doctors already use stem cell therapy to treat arthritis, but it is not considered standard practice.
There is a lot of debate around stem cell treatment, and it is helpful for potential patients to understand what stem cells are and the issues surrounding their use in arthritis therapy.
Why Are Stem Cells Special?
Stem cells are located throughout the body. What makes stem cells special is that they can:
- Divide and duplicate themselves, and
- Develop into different types of cells. A stem cell itself does not serve the body in any way, but it can develop into a cell that does, such as a cartilage cell or a bone cell.
Advocates of stem cell treatments hypothesize that, when placed into a certain environment, stem cells can transform to accommodate a certain need. For example, stem cells that are placed near damaged cartilage are hypothesized to develop into cartilage tissue.
How Are Stem Cells Used to Treat Arthritis?
Stem cells can be applied during a surgery (such as the surgical repair of a torn knee meniscus) or delivered through injections directly into the arthritis joint.
Watch: Knee Meniscus Tear Video
When administering stem cell injections, many physicians use medical imaging, such as ultrasound, in order to deliver cells precisely to the site of cartilage damage.
Where Do the Stem Cells Come From?
The most common type of stem cells used for treating arthritis are mesenchymal stem cells. Mesenchymal stem cells are usually collected from the patient’s fat tissue, blood, or bone marrow.
The process of collecting cells is often called harvesting.
- Adipose (fat) stem cells are harvested using surgery or liposuction.
- Peripheral blood stem cells, found in the bloodstream, are harvested by taking a blood sample from the patient.
- Bone marrow stem cells are harvested from one of the patient’s bones.
Bone marrow is usually taken from the pelvic bone using a needle and syringe, a process called bone marrow aspiration. The patient is given a local anesthetic and may also be given a sedative before the procedure.
Who Can Get Stem Cell Therapy for Arthritis?
There are no professional medical guidelines for who can and cannot receive stem cell therapy for arthritis. For now, the decision about who gets stem cell therapy is up to patients and doctors.
There is some evidence that people with severe arthritis can benefit from stem cell therapy.1 Most research indicates that younger patients who have relatively mild osteoarthritis or cartilage damage see the most benefit.2
Some doctors have certain criteria for recommending stem cell therapy. For example, they only recommend it to patients who are healthy and have relatively little cartilage damage. Other doctors make recommendations on a case-by-case basis.
Stem cell therapy is a promising but still unproven treatment, and will not be covered by most insurance companies.