The Latest Buzz about Stem Cell Joint Repair

Health Professional

More and more people are getting excited about stem cell treatment.  What’s all the buzz about?  Well more and more people are over the age of 60 and discovering that their joints are not holding up to the amount of activity that they are accustomed to doing.  Instead of signing up for multiple joint replacements, stem cell treatment is starting to look pretty good to some baby boomers.  Stem cell advocates promise to turn back the clock on osteoarthritis as if this were some type of fountain of youth.

Recent animal studies in rats, rabbits and dogs have shown some remarkable results in the ability of stem cells to repair joint cartilage defects. (1) (2)  These results have pushed researchers to vigorously study the effects of stem cell in human joints.  The easiest large joint to study is the knee because it is easily accessible and often afflicted with arthritis.

In a five year follow up study, the knee that had stem cell treatment was still doing better than it was prior to the treatment although not as good as it was just 6 months after the stem cells were used.  In fact, the “good” knee that did not get treated with stem cells was considered the “bad” knee five years after the stem cell treatment in opposite knee.  This suggests that the joint repair created by the stem cells seem to hold up over time. (3)

Selecting the right candidates for stem cell treatment is also critical for clinicians to determine.  From this ongoing research, failure is more likely in those over the age of 60 or those with joint cartilage defects larger than 6cm.  Overall, 43% reported excellent results following stem cell treatment in the knee. (4)  Research in the hip is promising too as long as the disease process is caught early enough. (5)

So far, the buzz has been very positive.  However, the buzz is quickly stifled by the cost.  As of now, insurance companies do not recognize stem cell treatment as a viable, hence, reimbursable procedure.  I have a friend who told me that she is paying nearly 10k for stem cell treatment on her knee.  She is unable to have a total knee replacement surgery due to a heart condition.  In her case, the out-of-pocket expense might be worth it.

The research is humming along very well.  As more and more evidence mounts, the insurance companies will eventually cover the costs of stem cell joint repair.  Until then, you will have to look at the options, the costs and the current buzz before deciding what is right for you.

Reference:

  1. Ha, CW; et al; Cartilage Repair Using Composites of Umbilical Cord-Derived Mesenchymal Stem Cells and Hyaluronic Hydrogel in Minipig Model; Stem Cell Transplant Medicine; Aug 2015
  2. Cuervo, B; et al; Hip Osteoarthritis in Dogs: randomized study using mesenchymal stem cells from adipose tissue and plasma rich in growth factors; International Journal of Molecular Sciences; July 2014; 15(8):13437-60
  3. Davatchi, F; et al; Mesenchymal Stem Cell Therapy for Knee Osteoarthritis: 5 year follow up for three patients; International Journal for Rheumatic Diseases; May 2015;
  4. Kim, YS; Mesenchymal Stem Cell Implantation for Knee Osteoarthritis: An Assessment of Factors Influencing Clinical Outcomes; American Journal of Sports Medicine; June 2015
  5. Papakostidis, C; et al; Role of “cell therapy” in Osteonecrosis of Femoral Head; Acta Orthopaedica; July 2015; 29:1-7

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