There are about 1.3 million Americans currently living with rheumatoid arthritis, and according to the National Institutes of Health, about 41 people out of every 100,000 are newly diagnosed every year. Women are more commonly afflicted, with between two and three times the risk of getting the autoimmune disease. In most cases, rheumatoid arthritis is chronic and can last for years or even a lifetime.

This painful condition can be debilitating, with sufferers often having to miss work and skip out on regular everyday activities. Though it mostly affects the joints, it can also affect internal organs and bodily systems (such as the respiratory and cardiovascular systems) and result in even more limitations for the individual. There are various treatments to help manage symptoms (primarily when it comes to pain and inflammation), but the condition so far remains without a cure.

That said, a portion of research and experimentation with regenerative medicine has long been focused on treating rheumatoid arthritis. This biomedical approach focuses on developing new treatments for debilitating illnesses by using the body’s own resources. At the forefront of all of this (or at least making up the biggest part of the conversation) is stem cell therapy. Though considered controversial, this form of treatment is considered by many medical researchers and practitioners to have a promising future.

What Exactly is Stem Cell Therapy

To understand stem cell therapy, it is crucial to understand stem cells and their purpose. These cells are essentially the body’s base or “raw” materials, the cells from which all other cells are generated. The body naturally divides these cells and forms other cells that become parts of new tissue and perform specialized functions. In a laboratory research setting, stem cells can be subjected to certain conditions that mimic the body and cause them to divide into more cells.

These newly divided cells are referred to as “daughter cells”, and they will go on to either become new stem cells (known as “self-renewal”) or develop into specially functioning cells (differentiation) that will become brain tissue, blood cells, heart tissue or even bone tissue. Only stem cells have the ability to generate new cells that can become different types of cells and tissue, which is exactly why researchers are so interested in stem cells in the first place.

For therapeutic treatments, stem cells are collected either from adults or from embryonic tissue. They are then injected into patients intravenously in the hope that they will develop into new tissue to replace / rejuvenate older or damaged tissue.

Stem Cell Therapy Research for Rheumatoid Arthritis Treatment

Studies are currently underway to examine how effective stem cell therapy may be as a rheumatoid arthritis treatment. However, past studies have already demonstrated promising results. For example, a study conducted in 2013 involved 172 people with rheumatoid arthritis divided into two groups. One group was administered regular doses of Mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs), which specifically develop into bone and cartilage. The other group served as the control and received a placebo. By the end of the study, the group that received MSCs demonstrated notably higher levels of disease remission and increased levels of regulatory T-cells (that prevent the body’s immune system from attacking its own tissue) when compared with the control.

It is important to note that all participants continued to take their regular rheumatoid arthritis medication at the time. Still, this study is not the only published findings current researchers can rely on. Though performed on lab mice rather than humans, a 2015 study yielded similar findings. The group of mice that received MSCs showed a spike in regulatory T-cell production. In the case of rheumatoid arthritis, higher regulatory T-cell levels is crucial in order to fight inflammation.

Despite these findings, the FDA currently holds the stance that research has not conclusively proven stem cells’ effectiveness for inflammatory conditions like rheumatoid arthritis. As of 2017, researchers are working on developing more reliable (with lower margins for error) methods of gathering data in this area.

PRP Therapy

It’s tough not to include Platelet Rich Plasma (PRP) therapy when discussing stem cell therapy. Especially with rheumatoid arthritis treatments, the two practically go hand-in-hand. Both can be used to repair bodily tissues that have been damaged by disease. However, where stem cell therapy utilizes young cells from either adult or embryonic tissue, PRP treatments involve separating out the natural plasma in blood. PRP therapy is therefore more straightforward and requires far less prep time. It’s also worth noting that blood plasma donations are often more readily available than stem cells, although both forms of treatment are still often wanting in resources in order to meet research demand.

Platelet rich plasma has already been shown to effectively rejuvenate and expedite healing in individuals with wounds. However, more research is needed in order to demonstrate its efficacy with rheumatoid arthritis. Theoretically, however, blood plasma should help heal (or at the very least, ease the symptoms of) the disease’s worn joints and inflamed tissues.

That said, stem cell therapy still appears to be the more promising of the two when it comes to treating degenerative diseases.

What Does this Mean for the Future?

There is still a lot of work to be done regarding stem cell therapy research (and PRP therapy), and even positive findings must be carefully assessed. Proposed treatments must then be researched and duplicated, and close collaboration with professionals across a wide variety of medical fields, as well as those in chemistry, computer science and other technology is also required. It’s also important to acknowledge that there are still various risks with each treatment, and medical professionals should keep patients well-informed throughout the process. It’s also worth noting that the FDA has yet to determine whether the risks outweigh the benefits, and therefore there are no stem cell treatments that are formally FDA-approved.

Basically, while stem cell therapy in the case of rheumatoid arthritis appears to be very promising and has already been shown to help a lot of people, it will most likely be years before the treatment becomes widespread. Furthermore, if stem cell therapy is indeed proven to effectively treat degenerative diseases like rheumatoid arthritis, it could unlock the key to treating a range of similar illnesses. The future for this form of treatment remains bright!