Osteoarthritis of the knee joints is a very debilitating condition that can affect older populations, as well as people who subject their joints to an unusually high level of strain over time, such as professional athletes. The slippery joint cartilage, which covers and cushions bone to allow for smooth frictionless movement, becomes worn down, causing swelling and making the joint feel stiff and painful. Eventually it can wear down to the point where there is bone-on-bone contact. In the past this would require a partial or complete knee replacement surgery, requiring extensive rehabilitation and recovery times of many months. Because of the limited lifespan of these replacements, this surgical procedure would often be postponed by doctors for as long as the patient could tolerate.
A promising new approach is to treat the affected knees with stem cells, which are either injected into, or surgically placed upon, the damaged cartilage. Stems cells are undifferentiated cells, meaning that they are not yet specialized to a particular function, but can transform as needed into specialized cells to repair a specific part of the body. The stem cell types used are obtained from the patient’s own abdominal adipose tissue, also known as fat. Stem cells from either or both of these sources may be used, as they have the ability to differentiate themselves into the particular variety of tissue cell types, including cartilage and bone, that are required to repair the damaged knee joint. The advantages of using the patient’s own stem cells, derived from his or her adipose tissue, are that there is no risk of rejection, and, because these particular stem cells are predisposed to differentiate into connective tissue and bone, there is little risk of the stem cells differentiating into an improper cell type.
In the injected procedure, stem cells are first obtained from from abdominal fat deposits, with specialized needles. A centrifuge is used to isolate the stem cells from other components. Blood is also drawn, from which blood cells called platelets are concentrated, as these platelets are able to release growth factors that promote tissue repair, including inducing the stem cells to differentiate into the correct tissue type needed. These platelets are injected into the injury site, followed by injection of the stem cells. Platelets may again be injected a few days later to ensure ongoing healing. With the injection method, recovery is very quick and treatment can be done as an outpatient procedure. Studies reporting reduced pain and improvement joint mobility after stem cell treatment suggest this is a most promising new alternative for osteoarthritis sufferers.