Brussels, 22 Nov 2005
UK scientists have succeeded in converting human embryonic stem cells into cartilage cells, an encouraging step that could lead to the growing of cartilage for transplantation. The research will be published in the scientific journal Tissue Engineering.
A team from Imperial College London, St Mary's Hospital and the University of Bristol took human embryonic stem cells and grew them together with chondrocytes, or cartilage cells, in Petri dishes. The presence of the cartilage cells encouraged the stem cells to change into chondrocytes.
Cartilage cells line the bony surface of joints and enable the bones to move smoothly over one another, acting as a very thin shock absorber. Articular cartilage damage can occur as a result of either destruction by injuries, or through progressive degeneration during a lifetime of use. When articular damage occurs, it does not heal as quickly and effectively as other tissues in the body. Instead, the damage tends to spread, allowing the bones to rub directly against each other and resulting in pain and reduced mobility.
Cartilage damage is currently treated by transplanting healthy cartilage cells from the patient, but this technique only supplies a limited amount of cells and risks damaging the cartilage they are taken from. This new method could provide doctors with unlimited cartilage for transplantations needed in the repair of injuries, treatment of medical conditions, replacement of knees and hips, or even for cosmetic surgery.
'The ability to grow cartilage using stem cells could have enormous implications for a number of medical problems. With [an] ageing population there will be an inevitable increase in problems created by people living longer. Although doctors have been able to carry out joint replacements for a number of years, it has not possible to replace the worn out cartilage. By replacing the cartilage it may be possible to avoid the need for a joint replacement for some time,' explained the first author of the paper, Dr Archana Vats from Imperial College London.
When compared with just cultivating cartilage cells alone, the mixed stem cells and cartilage were found to have higher levels of collagen, the protein constituent of cartilage. These mixed cells were then implanted in mice, for 35 days, on a bioactive scaffold previously developed through an earlier collaboration between medical researchers and engineers at Imperial College. When the scaffold was removed, scientists found that the cells had formed new cartilage, showing that not only can the cartilage be produced but also successfully transplanted in living tissue.
Dr Anne Bishop, from Imperial College London, and one of the authors, added: 'The potential of stem cells has been widely known for many years, but it is only recently we have started to make progress towards the ultimate goal of using them in patients. These results show it may be as little as five years before this advance can be used to directly benefit patients for a huge variety of illnesses and injuries.'
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