Stem cell therapy may soon become a go-to treatment option for patients with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) and similar autoimmune conditions.
Though stem cell research has been at the center of debate for years, scientists and doctors say they are excited about the promise that stem cells could hold for a number of medical purposes.
The discord surrounding stem cell research is due to the fact that previously stem cells could only be procured from embryonic cells. The moral and ethical debate surrounding the use of these types of cells, however, has waned a bit due to new medical advances.
Scientists and researchers no longer have to rely on cells harvested from embryos. In fact, these “master cells” can now be replicated within the patient’s own body.
These types of adult cells are called induced pluripotent stem cells. They can essentially be made into three other types of cells: neurons, muscle, and skin. Because they are the patient’s own cells, there is less risk associated with using them.
Stem Cells That Can Help RA Patients
Researchers are working on ways to target these “induced” stem cells to help heal certain target areas or fight certain diseases. These include joint destruction and rheumatoid arthritis.
At the moment, scientists are trying to figure out which type will be most useful for targeted cell replacement therapy. This could be promising for patients with RA.
According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), “although additional research is needed, iPSCs (induced pluripotent stem cells) are already useful tools for drug development and modeling of diseases, and scientists hope to use them in transplantation medicine.”
An informational fact sheet from Boston Children’s Hospital further explains that, “right now, it’s not clear which type or types of pluripotent stem cells will ultimately be used to create cells for treatment, but all of them are valuable for research purposes and each type has unique lessons to teach scientists.”
In addition, the Arthritis Foundation recently raised some eyebrows when they partnered with a stem cell research organization called Celltex.
“We are excited about the groundbreaking advancements in adult stem cell research leading toward new treatments and therapies for arthritis patients,” Fiona Cunningham, director of community advancement for the Arthritis Foundation South Central Region, said in a statement.
The NIH agrees that stem cell treatments could help to further treat these types of illnesses. In a statement, they said, “one of the more perplexing questions in biomedical research is — why does the body's protective shield against infections, the immune system, attack its own vital cells, organs, and tissues? The answer to this question is central to understanding an array of autoimmune diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis, type 1 diabetes, systemic lupus erythematosus, and Sjogren's syndrome.”
“Research on stem cells,” the statement adds, “is now providing new approaches to strategically remove the misguided immune cells and restore normal immune cells to the body.”
A study shared by the European League Against Rheumatism (EULAR) showed mixed results in stem cell transplants on patients with RA and related autoimmune diseases, including juvenile idiopathic arthritis, lupus, and Sjogren’s syndrome.
Some patients are already giving stem cell treatments a try, despite the therapy not being approved by the FDA or covered by most — if any — health insurance policies.
Julie Cerrone, an online activist for autoimmune illness and chronic pain, and behind the blog “It’s Just a Bad Day, Not a Bad Life,” recently tried stem cell therapy for her knees. She went from relying on crutches to walking on her own, practically pain-free.
She shared her story in a testimonial video for one of many companies that are at the forefront of this groundbreaking medical treatment. Cerrone has psoriatic arthritis, which is similar to RA.
Tina McVicker from Ohio, is also willing to give stem cell therapy a shot.
“I would try anything to help ease my RA pain and symptoms. I just want to walk again without struggle,” she said. “So, I’d be willing to consider the use of stem cells if it could help me and others like me.”
Some patients have even formed a pro-stem-cell organization in order to encourage further stem cell research and legislation.
But others don’t agree.
Keisha Wickham, of California, has had RA and lupus for several years. But she is also a Christian and politically conservative, so she opposes the use of any type of stem cells.
“I will wait until other therapies become available that are more suited to my personal belief system,” she said.
This year may be the one that bring more news on RA treatments involving stem cells.
Johns Hopkins University is currently doing research on utilizing stem cells to repair cartilage and bone, which could help ease joint pain and destruction in RA patients.