Could stem cell injections delay the need for joint replacement?As a knee and hip replacement specialist, Simon Bridle is always keeping abreast of developments within the industry that could benefit his patients. One area that is developing and gaining a lot of attention recently is that of stem cell research, and the benefits this could bring to healing patients who are in the early stages of hip and knee problems.

There are thousands of people each year who develop osteoarthritis in their knee or hip joints, and it can be a painful, debilitating condition, causing the joints to stiffen and be sore and tender. Although there are treatments available such as total knee and hip replacements, treatments for the early stages of this condition vary in effectiveness, as they can only really help patients deal with the condition, rather than reverse the problem or restore the worn connective tissue around the joints.

Understanding stem cell research

Stem cell research is something that a lot of people have heard about, yet many people still have lots of questions about it. What is it? How does it work? Is it available now?

Stem cells are human cells that are able to develop into other types of cells as they are forming. This means that they are being explored as being able to offer healing properties, as they could potentially create more cells that can be used beneficially in a damaged area of the body. The exciting fact about these cells is that when a stem cell divides, each new cell has the potential either to remain a stem cell or become another type of cell with a more specialized function, such as a muscle cell.

This research could mean that people who are suffering with the very early stages of knee or hip joint arthritis may be able to help lessen or reverse the progress of the condition. It is important to recognise the limitations of stem cell treatments, for example it is likely to be that younger patients with isolated small areas of articular cartilage damage are most likely to be those who could benefit from stem cell treatment as a means of delaying the need for joint replacement surgery.

The treatments that are undergoing research at the moment involve extracting mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs) and platelet-rich plasma directly from the patient. As the cells come from the body, the expected benefit is that the patient’s immune system should not reject the new cells.

Patience required

There are companies that are already talking about “regenerative” or “bio-restorative” medicine as an alternative to joint-replacement surgery, but Mr Bridle warns that although these technologies sound exciting, they are still in their medical infancy. It is likely to be many years before this kind of treatment could be available more widely.

Nevertheless, it is through research such as this that we keep progressing medical knowledge, so although this is still in the early stages of research at the moment, this is likely to be something that we hear a lot more about in years to come.