For advanced arthritis pain, stem cell treatment is a promising therapy.

The jury is still out on whether stem cell therapy can cure arthritis, but recent research has shown that stem cells implanted in arthritic cartilage can produce healthy cells to replace defective tissue.

How does stem cell treatment work?

Stem cells are “blank slate” cells with the ability to become several kinds of different cells in the body. In theory, these cells can replace or repair damaged tissues, eliminating the need for surgery. For example, if injected into a person’s spinal cord, the stem cells mimic spinal cord cells.

So promising is this research that Keck Medicine of USC recently established the Department of Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine to study how the body’s own developmental and repair mechanisms can restore damaged cells, tissues and organs — redefining regenerative medicine treatments for human diseases. The initiative includes tissue engineers, developmental biologist, geneticists and clinicians collaborating on stem cell research.

Who could benefit from stem cell treatment?

Andy McMahon, MD, PhD, chair of stem cell biology and regenerative medicine, predicts that because stem cell treatments would replace damaged tissue with healthy tissue, treatments would be more than remedies – they would be cures. This outcome could reach many different types of patients in the next decade, including those with osteoarthritis, HIV/AIDS, Alzheimer’s disease, dry age-related macular degeneration and immune system damage due to chemotherapy.

For arthritis patients, enough progress has been made in cell transplant therapy that autologous chondrocyte implantation (ACI), a cell transplant therapy using the patient’s own cells, is now widely used to replace cartilage between joints.

Doctors believe stem cell therapies can help patients have a more sustainable and rewarding life.

Where can I have stem cell therapy?

There are no FDA-approved therapies using stem cells to treat arthritis, but there are clinical trials to test the effectiveness of stem cell treatment. As part of a 2016 trial, neurologist Charles Liu, director of the USC Neurorestoration Center, through a clinical trial sponsored by the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine through Asterias Biotherapeutics, and involving five other clinical sites, squeezed 10 million stem cells into a paralyzed patient’s spinal cord. Within months, the patient could lift weights, write his name and feed himself.

The study is not complete, and the treatment is not standard therapy. But the promising results prompted researchers to extend the treatment to people with less-severe spinal injuries who would have been too risky to include in initial tests.

By Heidi Tyline King

If you are interested in learning more about stem cell therapy at Keck Medicine of USC and are located in Southern California, contact the USC Neurorestoration Center or schedule an appointment by calling (800)USC-CARE (800-872-2273) or visiting neuro.keckmedicine.org/request-an-appointment.