Joint injuries can be extremely difficult injuries to treat particularly because they are often slow healing, painful and have an enormous effect on a person’s mobility. In addition, missing or damaged cartilage can’t be replaced, which presents a complicated challenge for recovery. Joint injuries generally affect people of all ages but specifically, joint injuries can occur quite frequently in athletes or others who place a large amount of stress on the joints. Aging and similar factors can also compound the rate of healing, creating a challenge for a patient to obtain normal functioning and movement after the injury. The unfortunate end result can be a joint that remains susceptible to injury and is also weakened from repeated injury. Stem cells may, however, be able to eventually fill the gap, so to speak, and provide the missing tissue for those who have suffered from joint injuries.
Recent research has used horses as a model because joint injuries for this animal are both common and expensive. By using this model, they hope that the research can then be followed up through more extensive studies on humans. Researchers have used the horses’ umbilical cord as a source of stem cells, which is generally convenient and easy to obtain for this animal. It’s thought that since the stem cells are so ‘young,’ they are less likely to be rejected by the recipient’s immune system. They are also capable of greater divisions. Another benefit to using these stem cells is that their potential to differentiate into a greater number of cell types is higher than the potential found in adult stem cells. Furthermore, obtaining cord blood samples isn’t particularly invasive in comparison with obtaining samples from other sources, such as bone marrow. Yet another benefit is that the majority of ethical concerns regarding stem cells involve embryonic of foetal stem cells; thus, use of cord blood stem cells helps to avoid some of these challenges.
Researchers have been working to differentiate the stem cells into several different cell types, which include the main constituent of cartilage – chrondocytes. Their aim has been to isolate stem cells and then coax them to differentiate into the specialized cells required to treat joint injuries. If cartilage tissues could be cultured in the laboratory and then successfully implanted in the patient, the rate of healing could be substantially improved. The formation of scar tissue that occurs following an injury can also hinder the functioning and movement of the limb. Stem cells, however, may be able to provide help in this area by reducing the formation of scar tissue and facilitating faster healing. The application has widespread ramifications for both humans and veterinary medicine.
Despite cartilage attachment to bone being difficult to reproduce in addition to its complicated structure, new research holds hope for those with joint injuries, particularly athletes and similar individuals who are prone to these types of injuries. Treatments are still many years away from approval and a great deal of research and development is still required. Current research does, however, still show once again the enormous potential for stem cells to improve health.