In the future, stem cells may be used to treat osteoporosis. However, while the results from animal studies are promising, data in humans is very limited. Osteoporosis is currently treated with medications and lifestyle changes.

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Osteoporosis is a condition where your bones become weaker, putting them at risk of breaking more easily. It’s typically treated with medications and lifestyle changes.

One potential new treatment for osteoporosis is the use of stem cells. But research into stem cells for osteoporosis is still in its early stages.

Learn more about osteoporosis.

The cells of our body have a variety of specialized functions. For example, a red blood cell (RBC) carries oxygen to the organs and tissues of your body. But where do your RBCs come from? This is where stem cells come in.

Stem cells are cells that have the potential to develop into many cell types. Because of this, they can help to replace specialized cells, such as RBCs, as they die or become damaged.

There are two general types of stem cells:

  • Pluripotent stem cells: These cells can become any type of cell in your body. These are found naturally in developing embryos. But now, scientists have figured out a way to reprogram adult stem cells to become pluripotent.
  • Adult stem cells: Adult stem cells can only become certain types of cells. For example, blood cells like RBCs come from adult stem cells found in your bone marrow which are called hematopoietic stem cells.

The unique properties of stem cells allow them to divide repeatedly to make new cells. With further divisions, they can also develop into specialized cell types. These qualities make them good candidates for use in regenerative medicine.

The type of stem cell that’s commonly mentioned in relation to osteoporosis is called a mesenchymal stem cell (MSC). MSCs are adult stem cells that are found in a wide variety of tissues, such as:

How might stem cells help with osteoporosis?

Normally, old bone is regularly broken down and replaced with new bone, helping to keep your bones strong. But in osteoporosis, more bone is broken down than is replaced. This means that your bones gradually become weaker.

MSCs can go on to become osteoblasts, the cells that make new bone. A 2020 review notes that bone marrow MSCs have the highest potential to develop into osteoblasts and are the most common MSC type used in osteoporosis research.

A 2021 review notes that osteoporosis is closely associated with MSCs in several ways. These include lower levels of MSCs and a reduced ability of MSCs to become osteoblasts in people with osteoporosis.

So, the general idea here is that MSCs could be introduced into your body, where they’d eventually go on to become osteoblasts that make new bone. But that’s not all.

Bone formation by osteoblasts is controlled using signaling with various growth factors and cytokines. Besides becoming osteoblasts, MSCs can also secrete factors that promote bone formation by existing osteoblasts.

This means that not only could MSCs develop into new osteoblasts, but they could also help existing osteoblasts to function better.

What does the research say?

The bulk of the research into stem cells for osteoporosis has been done in animal models. A 2016 meta-analysis of 12 studies in animals found that stem cell therapy was associated with a significantly improved bone mineral density.

Human clinical trials of stem cells for osteoporosis are still very limited. For example, a 2018 preliminary report from a clinical trial only included results from four women.

Language matters

You’ll notice we use the binary terms “man” and “women” in this article. While we realize this term may not match your gender experience, it’s the term used by the researchers whose data was cited. We try to be as specific as possible when reporting on research participants and clinical findings.

Unfortunately, the studies and surveys referenced in this article didn’t report data for or may not have had participants who are transgender, nonbinary, gender nonconforming, genderqueer, agender, or genderless.

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The researchers noted the following findings after treatment with MSCs from bone marrow:

  • a decrease in pain in three out of four participants
  • no new osteoporosis-related breaks in any of the participants
  • no adverse effects during a 3-month follow-up period

Overall, much more research is needed into the use of stem cells for osteoporosis in humans. Important topics for future research include:

  • safety and effectiveness
  • the ideal dose and route of administration
  • which tissues the stem cells should come from
  • how to standardize stem cell preparation before treatment

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates stem cell products. It’s responsible for ensuring that drugs, biological products, and medical devices are both safe and effective before being made available for wider use.

But if you’re interested in stem cell therapy for osteoporosis, you’ll have to wait a bit longer. The FDA notes that no regenerative medicine therapies, which include stem cells, have been approved for the treatment of most orthopedic conditions, including osteoporosis.

In fact, very few stem cell-based therapies have been approved by the agency to date. As such, the FDA has warned consumers to be wary of clinics advertising stem cell therapies, as they may be unsafe, ineffective, or both.

Clinical trials help to test whether or not a product is safe and effective. The FDA reviews data from clinical trials to decide whether or not to approve a specific drug, biological product, or medical device.

Currently, clinical trials testing stem cell therapy for osteoporosis are limited. A search of finds that two trials have been suspended due to a lack of funds and a protocol update. Another trial’s status is unknown.

The aim of osteoporosis treatment is to slow down or stop your bone loss and to prevent breaks. This is currently accomplished through the use of medications and lifestyle changes.

The medications for osteoporosis can include:

Lifestyle changes for osteoporosis are:

What else are stem cells being researched for?

Due to their regenerative potential, stem cells are being researched for a variety of conditions. According to the National Library of Medicine, some examples include neurodegenerative disease, heart disease, and spinal cord injury.

Are there any FDA-approved stem cell therapies?

Yes. Many of the FDA-approved stem cell products are stem cells from cord blood that are used to treat specific types of blood disorders or cancers.

Another example of a stem cell-based therapy is betibeglogene autotemcel (Zynteglo), which is used to treat beta-thalassemia. You can find more information about FDA-approved cellular and gene therapy products here.

How common is osteoporosis?

According to the National Institute on Aging, osteoporosis affects 1 in 5 women older than 50 years of age, but only 1 in 20 men in the same age group.

Stem cells represent a potential new treatment for osteoporosis. It’s believed that introducing stem cells into the body of someone with osteoporosis can promote the growth of new bone.

But there’s no FDA-approved stem cell treatment for osteoporosis. Clinical trial data is also very limited, so we don’t have much information about the safety and effectiveness of this treatment in humans yet.