Do you suffer from chronic joint pain in the knees, back, hips, or shoulders? If so, a recent study published in the Annals of Medicine & Surgery has some great news for you! You can read the study here for yourself, if you like. It’s a little dense and technical, though, so let us break it down for you into terms that are easier to understand.
Who Were the Patients?
This study is an analysis of other published studies and clinical trials. Four studies were selected for analysis due to quality of data and procedures. In each of the studies, patients with cartilage damage to their knees were given stem cell treatments. The patients were of a wide variety of ages, genders, and ethnicities, with the average age being 38. They suffered from meniscal tears, meniscal degeneration, or bone-on-bone osteoarthritis, verified with pre-screening MRI images. These are all very painful conditions that can interfere with a huge range of everyday activities, from walking to intimacy!
Where Did the Stem Cells Come From?
Rest assured, these are not embryonic stem cells! There’s no ethical dilemma here, and no risk of cancer. Each study used adult mesenchymal stem cells. More simply put, these are mature stem cells that are partially differentiated. That means they can only become cells of certain skeletal tissue types—bone, cartilage, or fat cells. They cannot, for example, become neurons, tooth cells, or skin or muscle cells, hence the low risk of the teratomas (tumors containing multiple types of tissue) that are sometimes seen in stem cell therapies using undifferentiated stem cells from embryos.
Another important factor to note is that the donors in two of the trials were not HLA-matched, meaning the exact donor source was not a critical factor in selecting stem cells for injection; there was no need for a relative or other close match to be a donor, as would be the case for a kidney or other organ.
Want to Know More?
One of the studies harvested the cells from the hip area of adult donors, while another harvested them from adipose tissue (fat cells) via liposuction of the lower abdomen. Again, the donors were of differing ages, genders, and even ethnicities, compared to the recipients! The other two studies harvested stem cells from the bone marrow of the patients themselves in a separate operation.
How Were the Stem Cells Introduced?
In three of the studies, stem cells were injected directly into the knee. One study used more extensive intervention, in which they installed a small structure called a “collagen scaffold” seeded with the stem cells in hopes that it would give them a better chance of forming properly shaped new cartilage.
What Were the Results?
Patients were studied in follow-up exams for up to 15 months after the stem cell procedures. There was a lot of variation in the method of follow-up and the exact measurements taken. For example, one study used MRIs to measure meniscus thickness, with multiple patients in the experimental group (who received real stem cells) showing thickening of 15% or more. Zero patients in the control group (who received placebo injections) showed significant thickening or improvement, which is what was expected, and means the stem cells seem to be the genuine cause of the healing observed.
Other studies used functional test scores, measuring ease of walking, gait, and reports of joint pain. While there were a few failures, such as one patient who received the scaffolding method of treatment suffering a repeat meniscal tear, most patients showed significant and lasting improvement to both the function of their knee joints, and to their levels of pain.
What’s the Bottom Line?
The key takeaway from this study, published in a major medical journal and hosted on a government site, is that researchers found that the same types of stem cells we use (albeit harvested from different sources), injected using the same methods we use (in three out of the four studies), provided significant pain relief and improvement in joint function and subsequent quality of life.
Don’t you owe it to yourself to learn more?