Stem Cells May Put Arthritis Into Remission

For people living with RA or osteoarthritis, the idea that the symptoms of the disease could disappear-or at least go into remission--without invasive surgery might seem like a dream. But thanks to some hardworking researchers, that dream may soon be a reality. Why? Scientists have been working with stem cells to test new ways to repair damaged articular cartilage. These new procedures have shown great promise in giving patients a respite from the pain, stiffness, and degeneration that are hallmarks of so many different types of arthritis.

What are stem cells exactly? Stem cells are cells that have the ability to divide seemingly limitlessly in order to repair or restore other cells. They come from embryos as well as various parts of the adult body, and they act, in effect, as a human internal-repair system. A team at the Stem Cell Research Center at the University of Pittsburgh lately has been using adult stem cells from skeletal muscle to repair damaged articular cartilage. The stem cells are treated with a substance called bone morphogenetic protein, which enables them to work properly on the destroyed cartilage. While the team previously had experienced success by injecting the treated stem cells directly into the cartilage, they recently discovered that injecting the stem cells into the joint fluid surrounding the cartilage worked as well. According to Dr. Johnny Huard, the team leader, "it was a huge step forward."

While it's clear that stem cells can have a big role in treating arthritis, scientists are unsure of the exact mechanism by which they work. "We're trying to understand which cells within the joint play a part in the repairs," Dr. Huard says, adding that the stem cells most likely somehow communicate with other cells in order to complete repairs. The scientists' hope is that with stem-cell therapy, patients will be able to postpone or avoid invasive joint surgery altogether. More testing is needed, as are clinical trials. Currently, stem cells are being utilized in just two clinical trials at the University of Pittsburgh-cardiac repair after myocardial infarction and bladder dysfunction.

Dr. Johnny Huard, University of Pittsburgh

National Institutes of Health,