When used effectively, stem cells are thought to be able to become the building blocks of healing, effective against many different kinds of disease. For patients with arthritis, for instance, stem cells could help build new cells and rebuild damaged cartilage, adding cushioning to the diseased joints.
Osteoarthritis is characterized by the breakdown of the cartilage, which leads to pain and inflammation in the joint. If doctors could find a way to rebuild that damaged tissue, arthritis sufferers could find a long-term solution to pain relief.
Stem cells are a controversial topic on the national political spectrum. However, many of those who are opposed to stem cell research object to embryonic stem cells being used – those being taken from embryos produced by in vitro fertilization and which have since been frozen. There are many other ways to collect stem cells, though, including from adult cells and from the umbilical cord.
What’s the research?
Researchers from the Rush University Medical Center in Chicago have just launched the first clinical trial utilizing a stem cell product for arthritis. The substance known as Cartistem is manufactured from umbilical cord blood, an established source of high-quality stem cells. The blood is donated by patients and does not interfere with pregnancy, thereby circumventing any moral objections related to stem cells.
To make Cartistem, the stem cells in the blood are combined with hyaluronan, a building block for cartilage and a natural substance produced by the body to aid in healing. Hyaluronan is currently used as a lubricant, injected into arthritic joints to provide temporary relief from arthritis symptoms.
Cartistem is then surgically administered, often following arthroscopic surgery to remove damaged tissue. The goals of the clinical trial will be to reduce pain and discomfort in patients, and if the new medicine works, rebuild cartilage in the joints.
The long-term benefits
While it’s not life-threatening, osteoarthritis can be very painful and dramatically affect a patient's quality of life. By being able to significantly reduce pain and produce a way to re-grow cartilage, the stem cell treatment could help reduce the debilitating effect of arthritis for many people. Many older people are forced to undergo joint replacement surgeries to relieve pain and rid the joint of damaged tissue, though the procedures are costly and often result in a long, demanding rehabilitation process.
This new approach – if it proves effective in trials – would be groundbreaking in that it goes beyond just relieving pain, reducing inflammation in an affected joint or getting rid of the damaged tissue. Instead, Cartistem looks to heal the joint from the inside, rebuilding cartilage to cushion it and restoring its functionality.
This research could also be a big step forward in the development of biological medicine, in which doctors are using naturally-occurring substances to get the body to heal itself. Researchers hope to not only address the symptoms of a condition—such as arthritis--but also look to reverse disease trends and rebuild what has been lost.