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Injectable Cell Therapy to Treat Osteoarthritis

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Injectable cell therapy emerges as a promising strategy in the realm of osteoarthritis treatment, holding the potential to revitalize damaged cartilage within joints.

Written by

Dr. Asma. N

Medically reviewed by

Dr. Anuj Gupta

Published At April 8, 2024
Reviewed AtMay 31, 2024


Osteoarthritis (OA), the prevailing form of arthritis, manifests as a gradual breakdown of joints known as degeneration. Characterized by pain, stiffness, limited range of motion, and swelling, this condition typically emerges after prolonged wear and tear, primarily affecting the hands, knees, neck, hips, and lower back. Predominantly afflicting the elderly, osteoarthritis is influenced by developmental, genetic, mechanical, and metabolic factors. Employing cell therapy, particularly stem cells, presents a minimally invasive avenue for mitigating inflammation and rejuvenating damaged cartilage within joints. Not only does this approach alleviate symptoms, but it also facilitates joint repair.

What Is the Rationale Behind Using Cell Therapeutics in Managing Osteoarthritis?

Osteoarthritis entails a progressive erosion of cartilage, coupled with inflammation in the joint lining, thickening of the joint capsule, the emergence of bone spurs, and alterations in the bone beneath the cartilage layer. Regenerating this articular cartilage by itself proves unfeasible due to its absence of blood supply, prompting ongoing scientific exploration into methods to regenerate or at least retard the degenerative process in OA-afflicted joints. Among these avenues of inquiry, cell therapy stands out as a promising contender, currently undergoing intensive research efforts.

In the initial stages, clinicians turned to intra-articular injections of Glucocorticoids and Sodium hyaluronate (HA) to alleviate symptoms and quell inflammation effectively. However, while these treatments excel in providing symptomatic relief, they fall short in terms of promoting cartilage regeneration. Consequently, there arises a pressing demand for cell therapy interventions capable of not only alleviating symptoms but also fostering structural enhancements for articular cartilage (AC).

How Is Injectable Cell Therapy Used in the Treatment of Osteoarthritis?

Cell therapy stands as a treatment modality wherein cells are harnessed to mend damaged cartilage, aided by their capacity to differentiate into matrix-producing chondrocytes. Initially, surgical interventions involved the implantation of cells directly into the joint. However, contemporary approaches lean towards minimally invasive procedures, such as arthroscopic surgery, facilitating the injection of cells directly into the joint, known as intra-articular injection. While this method displays promise, ongoing research delves into its efficacy and potential for widespread application.

Cell therapy incorporates a diverse array of cell types, including:

  • Naive or Modified Chondrocytes: Chondrocytes play a pivotal role in upholding the functionality and integrity of cartilage tissue. These specialized cells can be sourced directly from existing cartilage or engineered in laboratories. With their capacity to generate new extracellular matrix components, chondrocytes foster the regeneration and repair of damaged cartilage.

  • Stem Cells: Stem cells offer a versatile resource for regenerative therapies, obtainable either from the patient's body, termed autologous cells, or from a donor, known as allogeneic cells. At the same time, autologous cells boast varied capabilities and functions, and allogeneic cells present advantages such as reduced cost and enhanced accessibility. Mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs), a subset of stem cells, garner significant attention due to their remarkable ability to differentiate into diverse cell types.

MSCs exhibit the potential for differentiating into chondrocytes, crucial for facilitating cartilage repair processes. Stem cells sourced from adipose tissue typically yield higher quantities compared to those derived from bone marrow (BM), and adipose-derived stem cells (ASCs) demonstrate superior proliferative capacity over bone marrow-derived mesenchymal cells (BM-MSCs). Studies indicate that infusing more than 10 million MSCs is often necessary to achieve substantial cartilage repair in human subjects, underscoring the importance of dosage considerations in stem cell-based therapies.

Moreover, mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs) exhibit immune-modulatory and anti-inflammatory properties, offering potential relief from inflammation within osteoarthritis (OA) joints. Additionally, the utilization of human adipose stem cells (hASCs) in suspended form has been suggested to prolong the lifespan of other stem cells, albeit requiring further exploration through additional research. Another developmental approach involves leveraging transforming growth factor (TGF)-β, a key signaling molecule that plays a pivotal role in cartilage formation and repair.

How Does Injectable Cell Therapy Work?

The ideal scenario in cell therapy involves injected cells seamlessly integrating into chondral defects or damaged cartilage, where they undergo direct differentiation into chondrocytes, thus contributing to cartilage production. These introduced mesenchymal cells serve as catalysts, stimulating chondrocyte activity and prompting the differentiation of endogenous progenitor cells.

This process is facilitated by the secretion of paracrine factors, proteins released by cells capable of influencing neighboring cells. These factors intricately modulate the activities of articular chondrocytes and synovium, impacting both the constructive and degradative pathways of cartilage. Consequently, damaged cartilage undergoes regeneration. However, a notable drawback arises as injected cells exhibit a short lifespan within the joint cavity, becoming undetectable within a relatively brief period, typically 14 to 50 days post-infusion.

Innovative approaches, such as embedding cells into chondral defects in pellets or within supportive matrices like alginate gel, demonstrate promise in enhancing cell survival and engraftment. Research indicates that these implantation methods yield superior outcomes in terms of improvement.

Who Is the Ideal Candidate for Injectable Cell Therapy?

When contemplating cell therapy for osteoarthritis, the stage of disease progression assumes paramount importance. Patients presenting with early to mid-advanced OA, typically categorized as Kellgren–Lawrence grade 2 to 3, are often considered suitable candidates for mesenchymal stem cell therapy. Notably, studies suggest that individuals under 60 tend to exhibit more favorable responses to MSC therapy than their older counterparts.

How Might Cell Therapy Revolutionize the Approach to Treating Osteoarthritis in the Coming Years?

Studies conducted in animal models have demonstrated stem cell therapies' safety and remarkable effectiveness, yielding promising outcomes in symptomatic relief and the regeneration of hyaline cartilage.

However, several critical factors warrant consideration:

  • The therapeutic efficacy of mesenchymal stem cells in osteoarthritis is primarily attributed to paracrine mechanisms rather than direct integration into cartilage and extracellular matrix production.

  • The optimal dosage of intra-articularly delivered MSCs must be carefully calibrated to strike a balance between treatment effectiveness and cost considerations. While higher doses may not always translate to superior results, exploring multiple smaller doses could prove advantageous.

  • Despite the escalating adoption of cell injection therapy for OA, there remains a scarcity of high-quality evidence substantiating its efficacy.

  • The financial burden associated with these treatments often exceeds that of conventional therapies.

In summary, although stem cell therapy holds considerable promise for OA treatment, meticulous attention to factors such as dosing and the imperative for robust evidence is paramount for its successful clinical deployment and eventual cost-effectiveness.


Injectable cell therapy emerges as a hopeful path in the treatment landscape of osteoarthritis, holding the promise of tackling the root causes of cartilage degeneration and furnishing enduring relief for afflicted individuals. However, further exploration is imperative to unravel the most effective delivery techniques, mechanisms of action, and dosage protocols to optimize therapeutic efficacy and durability.

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Dr. Anuj Gupta
Dr. Anuj Gupta

Spine Surgery


stem cell therapyosteoarthritis
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