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Could Stem Cell Therapy Be A Treatment For Osteoarthritis?

Posted on July 8, 2024 by Elizabeth Swanson
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Osteoarthritis – a degenerative joint disease – can be challenging to live with. It causes pain and stiffness, making it difficult to go about your daily life. Virtually no one is immune to it as they get older, since it’s caused by cartilage wearing down over the years, says Ramsey Shehab, M.D., a sports medicine physician at Henry Ford Health.  

“Age is the greatest risk factor for osteoarthritis, but genetics and getting injured at a young age can also play into when someone will develop osteoarthritis – and how severe it will be,” says Dr. Shehab.   

That said, a recent study using mice found that a loss of a stem cell called the Gremlin 1 gene – which aids skeleton formation – may also play a role in osteoarthritis, suggesting the joint disease is due to more than structural wear and tear. Researchers from the University of Adelaide in Australia found that stem cell therapy to promote the production of Gremlin 1 cells made the mice’s cartilage grow thicker. 

But Dr. Shehab maintains a healthy dose of skepticism – at least for now. “There are so many mice studies. The problem is finding value in them,” he says. “Taking these results from an animal to human study is a long shot. It’s going to take much more research to see whether stem cell therapy to replace this gene will actually be a treatment for osteoarthritis.”

Current Ways To Manage Osteoarthritis

Until then, Dr. Shehab says there are several ways to help manage symptoms of osteoarthritis: 

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  • Losing weight. Extra weight adds pressure on the joints and can accelerate cartilage loss. Losing weight, if needed, may help slow the progression of osteoarthritis. 
  • Physical therapy. Physical therapy can help strengthen the legs around the joints to increase mobility and lessen pain.
  • Avoiding high-impact movements. If your job requires you to make repetitive, high-impact movements, you may be at risk for osteoarthritis earlier in life. It’s important to make adjustments to lessen the impact on your joints.   
  • Over-the-counter pain relievers. Ibuprofen, naproxen and acetaminophen can help temporarily relieve pain and inflammation, as osteoarthritis is an inflammatory condition. Take as directed and under the recommendation of your doctor. 
  • Hyaluronic acid injections. Your doctor can give you hyaluronic acid injections, which lubricate the joints to increase mobility and reduce stiffness in the short term. 
  • Steroid injections. If the pain is severe, your doctor can give you steroid injections to decrease pain and inflammation. Multiple injections, however, are not recommended as they can worsen osteoarthritis over time, says Dr. Shehab.    
  • Platelet-rich plasma (PRP) injections. This treatment injects growth factors from your blood into your knees to extend the life of cartilage. It can’t regrow cartilage, says Dr. Shehab, but it can keep existing cartilage healthy.  

The only cure right now for osteoarthritis is joint replacement surgery, which is usually an option after you’ve cycled through the above, lesser invasive options to manage symptoms. 

“While some people are wary of joint replacement surgery, we have great technology that makes joint replacements longer lasting and feel more like natural joints,” says Dr. Shehab. “It can really be life changing.”


Reviewed by Ramsey Shehab, M.D., deputy chief of sports medicine at Henry Ford Health. He sees patients at the Henry Ford Center for Athletic Medicine, Henry Ford Medical Center – Troy and Henry Ford Medical Center – Bloomfield Township.

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