Stem cell therapy may provide the ultimate answer to an incurable form of arthritis affecting the knees, according to a recent study conducted by scientists at the University of Keele, England.

Researchers have developed a new technique through which they transfer stem cells taken from a patient's bone marrow to the infected knee joint. The stem cells then spur growth of the cartilage that has worn out.

In patients suffering from osteoarthritis, the cartilage between bones gradually wears down due to an autoimmune response in the body, resulting in crippling pain and stiffness. When osteoarthritis becomes severe, the cartilage gets so thin that the ends of the bone rub against each other causing deformation.

The researchers drew out the stem cells from the patient’s bone marrow through a keyhole surgery and stored them in a laboratory atmosphere for three months giving it time to grow. Scientists said once the stem cells were implanted into the damaged joint, they would stimulate the formation of a new cartilage over the next few months.

Formation of a new cartilage could drastically reduce the inflammation and pain experienced by the patient. The first-in-man study using the stem cells to treat osteoarthritis is expected to begin later this year at the Robert Jones and Agnes Hunt hospital in Oswestry, Shropshire.

The one-year long study using the stem cells will be carried out on 70 patients with osteoarthritis in their knees. The patients will be monitored to assess the condition of the cartilage over the course of the year and their ability to carry out day-to-day tasks.

Stem cell treatment is expected to be market-ready within the next five to ten years. “The important thing is to run a randomised trial. If successful, we need to find out if it is cost effective,” says Prof. James Richardson, who is leading the study.