Melbourne stem cell innovation paves the way for pain free futures for arthritis sufferers

In a world’s first, Melbourne scientists are currently trialling a groundbreaking stem cell treatment for arthritis that could dramatically improve quality of life of those suffering from the disorder.

Imagine a world where arthritis sufferers can undergo a treatment to significantly reduce their pain and improve their joint movement without needing surgery.

It’s not science fiction. In a world’s first, scientists at the Melbourne Stem Cell Centre (MSCC) are conducting trials for treatment has the potential to change the way conditions like osteoarthritis are managed – and even reverse their effects.

Dr Julien Freitag is the chief clinical investigator at the MSCC, which has partnered with private laboratory Magellan Stem Cells to assist in the scientific background work.

“In conjunction with Magellan Stem Cells, we are running a number of trials using adipose fat-derived stem cells in the treatment of osteoarthritis,” he said.

“We’ve got a number of other studies planned that are currently pending ethics approval. Those are on lower back pain but also a later study on multiple sclerosis as well.”

The early signs are looking very promising.

“We’re two years into two of the trials,” Dr Freitag said.

“One of those is a randomised control trial on the treatment of knee osteoarthritis, and we’ve just completed full recruitment for that trial.

“We will still be collecting data over the next 12-18 months, but initial preliminary data has been very successful. We’ve been particularly happy with the outcome results with both significant pain and functional improvement.”

The levels of success have varied, with some subjects showing significant stabilisation in their joints. Others have even seen improvement in their knee structure.

“We’ve seen, in some patients, regrowth and improvement in their cartilage volume,” Dr Freitag said.

“In many patients, the more reproducible structural finding is a stabilisation of their osteoarthritis; it does not progress and it does not get worse.”

Dr Freitag says it is pleasing to see patients respond very positively to the treatment:

“When we look at that outcome data, we are seeing – in as little as one month – significant improvement in pain and function of patients who have undergone treatment.”

What makes Dr Freitag and his team’s work so significant is the fact that similar trials are outlawed by legislation in superpower countries like China and the United States.

It means that the MSCC are world leaders in stem cell research.

“We are very fortunate in Australia, under our Therapeutic Goods Administration guidelines, to be able to run clinical trials in this translational research, Dr Freitag said.

“Other countries, unfortunately, have very tight restrictions on clinical research.

“When we look at the trials we are running, the randomised control trials were the first of their kind in the world. In that regard, we are very fortunate to be in a world leading position.”

While the early results are exciting, they are just the tip of the iceberg.

The pace of the trials is determined by the progress of research into osteoarthritis itself; as the understanding of the condition improves, the scope of the stem cell trials will increase.

Because the knowledge [we have of the causes of arthritis] has only come very recently, our knowledge of how stem cells may be useful in that area is only recent as well,” Dr Freitag said.

“It’s been over the last four years when we have really seen emerging clinical evidence, so it’s very exciting to be at that forefront of this emerging treatment.

“Looking at our results, I have absolute confidence that stem cell therapy and regenerative therapy will play an enormous part in the clinical management of patients, now and in the future.”