In a groundbreaking development, Australian surgeons are using stem cells to regrow damaged knee cartilage. Two separate Melbourne-based clinical trials have been highly successful. Doctors hope the research will soon make joint replacements obsolete.
The studies involved 70 patients. In early results, 50 percent of patients treated experienced a 75 percent reduction in pain and significantly improved knee functions. Damage from degenerative conditions was halted and even reversed. Dr. Julien Freitag, the chief clinical investigator, said the team’s goal was to prevent, or at least delay the need for replacement of knee, hip and other joints.
Says Dr. Freitag:
The ability to see that the arthritis is not progressing is exciting — but to see reversal and regrowth in cartilage in some patients is incredibly exciting.
There are many avenues, not just within musculoskeletal, where stem cell therapy may revolutionise medicine. This is not just promise — we are actually seeing the reality of stem cell therapy now, which is exciting.
Dr. Freitag says he was most astounded by some patients’ regrowth of cartilage. For example, in the case of 26-year-old Ollie Thursfield, an MRI image showed new cartilage had filled in a decade-long gap.
The studies were conducted by Monash and La Trobe universities, in conjunction with Magellan Stem Cells. They used patients’ own isolated and expanded mesenchymal stem cells, and injected them into the patients’ knee joints. One of the studies involved 30 osteoarthritis patients, who were given either stem cell treatment or a placebo. The second study involved 40 patients with isolated cartilage lesions; the researchers aimed to learn whether cells could stop normal joint deterioration and subsequent arthritis.
Full results of the trial have not yet been published, but the researchers say two-thirds of patients have had a halving of knee pain and movement restriction, and the improvements have been maintained over one year. Dr. Freitag says:
When you can visually see a structural change it is incredibly exciting, and that is the case for Ollie — which was a watershed moment.
It was one of those moments where all of the time and effort that has gone into this process has enormous reward, with one image.
The Melbourne results mirror the success of earlier international trials, demonstrating the superior outcomes of patients treated with stem cells over those treated with the placebo. Dr. Freitag says that in his research, the greatest improvements have been in patients with the most severe joint damage, where there was bone on bone.
Patients who initially received the placebo are now being offered the stem cell treatment.