Stem Cell Therapy for Arthritis: Does It Work?
Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a painful joint condition caused by an autoimmune response that affects 13 million Americans (one out of every 100 Canadians). This is up to 1% of the total global population. Some symptoms of RA are tender, stiff or swollen joints, and fatigue.
While these symptoms can be painful, there are a variety of treatments for rheumatoid arthritis. This includes medications and lifestyle changes. However, there is one emerging therapy for RA that you might not have heard about: stem cell therapy for arthritis.
What Is Stem Cell Therapy?
Stem cells are special cells that can be thought of as the “building blocks” for all other cells in the body. Stem cells start off similar to each other but can differentiate into different types of cells based on their eventual purpose (e.g. blood cells, muscle cells, skin cells). These cells can be collected from donors and then replicated in the lab.
Stem cell therapy is sometimes called regenerative medicine and it is a therapeutic technique that uses stem cells to regenerate damaged or malfunctioning tissue. Stem cell therapy is currently a popular technique for treating cancer, but in recent years it has emerged as a possible treatment for RA as well.
How Is Stem Cell Therapy for Arthritis Used?
The stem cells used to treat rheumatoid arthritis are called mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs). These are cells that can differentiate into cartilage and bone tissue. Stem cell treatment for RA is called synovial MSC therapy.
The process for synovial MSC therapy is fairly simple. While stem cell treatments for cancer involve conditioning with chemotherapy prior to treatment, synovial MSC therapy can be done without conditioning because there are no cancer cells to kill.
During the procedure, stem cells from donors (or replicated from donor cells in the lab) are injected directly into the tissue surrounding the joints through an intravenous (IV) infusion over the course of several days, while carefully monitoring for any adverse reactions.
The Pros and Cons of Stem Cell Therapy for Arthritis
When seeking any new therapy, it is important to be aware of the pros and cons. This is particularly true for a new treatment like synovial MSC therapy.
The Pros of Stem Cell Therapy for Arthritis
- It may help treat your arthritis. This is an obvious pro, but worth considering. Especially if you have tried many different treatments for your RA and have no had success yet.
- Research has demonstrated benefits. Research has shown that MSCs can suppress the immune system. This sounds bad, but because RA is caused by an immune response, so this is actually a benefit.
- Promoting science and helping future patients. Because this is such an emerging treatment, research is still being undertaken to determine its benefits. If you receive this treatment, it may be a part of a clinical trial where your results will be used to improve these treatments for generations to come.
While losing excess weight can be challenging with arthritis, it can be achieved with a proper diet and safe, gentle exercise to improve symptoms.
The Cons of Stem Cell Therapy for Arthritis
- Stem cell therapy is currently unregulated for arthritis. The FDA only regulates certain types of stem cells and MSCs are not currently regulated. This can make stem cell treatment for arthritis difficult to access outside of a clinical trial. Talk to your doctor about your options and be aware of any clinic offering miracle stem cell treatments.
- Insurance may not cover treatment. Because it is such an emerging treatment, stem cell therapy qualifies as an experimental medical procedure, so many insurance carriers will not cover it. This can make this therapy costly for the patient.
- Potential risks and side effects. Any therapy has potential for risks and side effects. For stem cell therapy, there risks include infection and rejection of the foreign cells by the immune system. These side effects can actually make RA worse because the condition is caused by the immune system attacking the joints. But these risks are par for the course for any therapy that involves receiving donated cells or tissues.
Is Stem Cell Therapy Effective for Arthritis?
There simply has not been enough research to say for certain whether stem cell therapy for arthritis will be effective for every patient. The treatment is too new to say for sure.
The therapy has shown to be effective in managing RA in certain studies, but the results are still out as far as major clinical trials.
Talk to Your Doctor
If you think stem cell therapy for RA may be right for you, talk to your doctor. They can help you find a clinic to seek treatment, possibly as part of a clinical trial. It’s also important to talk to a doctor because some clinics have requirements for age and general health for stem cell therapy.
Additionally, because stem cell therapy for arthritis is not regulated. So, it is especially important that you consult a doctor you trust before pursuing new treatment.
Stem cell therapy shows tremendous promise in its treatment of RA. If you and your doctor decide this treatment is right for you, you could not only see results for your own condition but help provide valuable insight into this new treatment that will help other patients for years to come.