The day that people with osteoarthritis can relieve their painful joints by making use of stem cell therapy to regrow damaged cartilage took a step closer recently when investigators revealed successfully developing cartilage in rats utilizing embryonic stem cells.
The success is attributed to a novel process or protocol for using human embryonic stem cells, developed under strict laboratory conditions, by the scientists at the University of Manchester in the UK.
The scientists report a research about their work – financed by Arthritis Research UK – in the journal Stem Cells Translational Medicine. The research shows how they applied the new protocol to develop and change human embryonic stem cells into cartilage cells.
Led author Sue Kimber, hopes their method could in future be used to cure the painful joint problem osteoarthritis. She notes:
“This work shows an essential step forward in treating cartilage damage by making use of embryonic stem cells to form new tissue, even though it is even now in its early experimental stages.”
Osteoarthritis primarily affects individuals over the age of 60, and is a main cause of disability. It is a degenerative disease triggered by wearing away of cartilage in joints that have been consistently stressed throughout a person’s lifetime, which includes the knees, hips, fingers and lower spine area.
The World Health Organization reports that about 9.6% of men and 18.0% of women aged over 60 years have symptomatic osteoarthritis.
Investigators produced precursor cartilage cells from embryonic stem cells
Cartilage cells also well-known as chondrocytes are formed from precursor cells known as chondroprogenitors. In their research, the team explains how they applied the new protocol to develop chondroprogenitors from human embryonic stem cells.
They implanted the cartilage cells into impaired cartilage in the knee joints of rats.
Following 4 weeks the cartilage was partly repaired. After 12 weeks, the cartilage surface area was smooth and similar in appearance to regular cartilage.
Later assessment of the regenerated cartilage confirmed that cartilage cells from the embryonic stem cells were still existing and active in the tissue.
The research is promising because not only did the new protocol result in regenerated, healthy-looking cartilage, but there were none of the adverse side-effects that have since dashed the great hopes increased in the early days of stem cell research – the development of abnormal or unorganized tissue or tumors.
Evaluating the new protocol is the initial step toward studies in human arthritis sufferers
Evaluating the new protocol in rats is the initial step toward running studies in individuals with arthritis. But prior to this can happen much more requires to be done to demonstrate the protocol works and is risk-free. The team is currently planning their further step to build on their results.
Another method to using human embryonic stem cells to produce new cartilage cells is using adult stem cells. Adult stem cells are identified in specific “niches” in the body and are not as controversial as embryonic stem cells but their possibilities are not so great. Also, note the authors, they can’t presently be produced in huge amounts and the procedure is expensive.
Dr. Stephen Simpson, director of research at Arthritis Research UK, states that he is inspired by the new study because:
“Embryonic stem cells provide an alternate source of cartilage cells to adult stem cells, and we are enthusiastic about the immense potential of Professor Kimber’s work and the effect it could have for individuals with osteoarthritis.”
He describes that present therapies for osteoarthritis can only relieve painful symptoms, and there are no successful therapies that postpone or reverse cartilage degeneration. Joint replacements are successful in older individuals, but these choices are not effective in younger individuals or athletes with sports injuries.