ARTHRITIS sufferers could be offered cartilage replacements within five years after a breakthrough by British scientists.
Treatment for the crippling condition is currently limited to basic pain relief or complex joint replacement surgery.
But trials using stem cells have shown “astonishing” results with tissue almost as good as new after just three months.
Professor Sue Kimber, who led the research, said: “This work represents an important step forward in treating cartilage damage using embryonic stem cells to form new tissue.
“It may offer a new line of therapy for people with crippling joint pain and we now need this process to be developed for patients.”
Osteoarthritis occurs when cartilage at the ends of bones wears away causing severe pain and stiffness.
Researchers say the latest experiments show the procedure could potentially be a “safe and effective treatment” for more than eight million people who suffer from joint damage and inflammation.
In the experiments, led by teams at Manchester University and Arthritis Research UK, discarded embryonic stem cells from IVF clinics were transformed into cartilage cells.
These were transplanted into rats with defective joints.
Tests showed the high-quality artificially grown tissue quickly aided the repair of the joint.
The experiments have excited researchers because they were able to generate new healthy-looking cartilage without signs of damaging side effects.
Although cartilage cells created from adult stem cells are being used experimentally they cannot be produced in large amounts because the procedure is prohibitively expensive.
But embryonic stem cells’ capacity to multiply quickly offers the possibility of high-volume cartilage production.
Embryonic stem cells offer an alternative source of cartilage cells
Dr Stephen Simpson, of Arthritis Research UK
The controversial science behind the experiments is one that was backed by Superman star Christopher Reeve, who became a quadriplegic after being thrown from a horse.
Before he died in 2004, aged 52, he lobbied on behalf of people with spinal cord injuries and for human embryonic stem cell research, establishing the Christopher Reeve Foundation.
The technology has already been used in advanced clinical trials to treat macular degeneration, the debilitating eye condition suffered by actress Dame Judi Dench.
And it has reinforced scientists’ belief that embryonic stem cells could be “coaxed” to make almost any tissue in the body.
Professor Kimber said: “The question is do you want these eggs thrown down the sink or developed into cell lines that could be used as therapy?
“Developing and testing this process in rats is the first step in generating the information needed to run a study in people with arthritis.”
Dr Stephen Simpson, of Arthritis Research UK, said: “Embryonic stem cells offer an alternative source of cartilage cells to adult stem cells and we’re excited about the immense potential of Professor Kimber’s work and the impact it could have.”
Osteoarthritis usually develops with age as cartilage, the body’s shock absorber, is worn down in hips, knee and wrist joints.
Around 60,000 Britons a year have a knee replacement.
Most rely on daily doses of anti-inflammatory painkillers.
But millions who take anti-inflammatory drugs suffer unpleasant side effects.
Professor Kimber’s work has been published in the journal Stem Cells Translational Medicine.
Published: March 4, 2015. By GILES SHELDRICK
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