Stem cell treatment can stop and reverse osteoarthritis

A large stem cell trial of its type has shown that pure stem cells provide a more effective treatment for osteoarthritis than traditional therapies, such as pain relief drugs, anti-inflammatories, prescribed exercise and knee surgery.


The new research – published in the international journal Regenerative Medicine – provides osteoarthritis sufferers with a non-surgical option that reduces pain, increases mobility, stops the progression of arthritis and has, in some instances, regrown patients’ cartilage, lead researcher Associate Professor Julien Freitag said.


Almost one-sixth of Australians suffer with osteoarthritis and the only treatment options available to most are pain relief drugs, prescribed exercise, knee surgery and joint replacement.


The world-first research was conducted by Melbourne Stem Cell Centre and Magellan Stem Cells under the auspices of the Monash University Human Research Ethics Committee.


The year-long study titled "Adipose-derived mesenchymal stem cell therapy in the treatment of knee osteoarthritis: a randomized controlled trial" found:

  • Statistical and clinically significant pain and function improvement following stem cell therapy in 85 per cent of patients (observed as early as one month following treatment)
  • Trial subjects experienced a dramatic decrease in pain and a big increase in functional activity with stem cell treatment, resulting in their quality of life scores improving almost three-fold (290%)
  • Average pain improvement of 69% at 12 months follow-up
  • Significantly greater pain improvement compared to current conventional therapies, including use of anti-inflammatories, a prescribed exercise program and knee arthroscopy
  • Progression of arthritis halted in the majority (89%) of participants who underwent multiple stem cell injections.
  • Evidence of cartilage regrowth.
  • Stem cell therapy was well tolerated, with no serious adverse events.


Associate Professor Dr Julien Freitag, Head of Clinical Research at Melbourne Stem Cell Centre, said, “This is the largest published trial of its type on the benefits of stem cell therapy and osteoarthritis. It validates stem cell therapy as a real treatment option.”


“This trial confirms that cell therapies will change the way in which we practice medicine.”



The results in the randomized controlled trial are further qualified by follow up of almost 200 private case-series patients treated by Melbourne Stem Cell Centre. In what Professor Freitag calls ‘real world research’, the results for private patients have been resoundingly successful. Those further results include:

  • 86.3% of patients noted improvement at 12 months follow-up. Long term follow-up shows sustained improvement beyond two years
  • More than 50% of patients with severe bone-on-bone arthritis noted more than 50% improvement in pain
  • 70% of patients with moderate knee arthritis noted more than 50% improvement in pain
  • Overall the mean pain score improved by 45%
  • Quality of life improved on average by 60%.


Professor Dr Julien Freitag, Head of Clinical Research at Melbourne Stem Cell Centre, “The results conclusively show that stem-cell therapy is a safe and effective treatment option in the management of arthritis.”


“The research shows that stem cell treatment increases joint function, reduces pain levels and halts the progression of osteoarthritis.”


Professor Freitag cautions patients that not all stem cell treatments are the same.


“The results of this study are specifically for adipose (fat) derived, high-dose, expanded stem cells.”


“It takes up to eight weeks to harvest, expand and perform quality control measures to ensure that stem cells are pure, viable and not contaminated.”


“Other treatment options – often same-day procedures – which might be described as stem cell therapy do not show the evidence that this research has found.”


Professor Freitag said the randomised controlled trial on the use of adipose (fat tissue) derived stem cells in the treatment of arthritis was “ground-breaking and life-changing for those suffering from arthritis”.


Research-based adipose-derived stem cell treatment compared with other treatments:

  • Stem cells are the only treatment now proved to successfully stabilise and halt the progression of osteoarthritis
  • Stem cells were found to be four times as effective as typically prescribed pain-relief drugs
  • Stem cells were found to be four times as effective as prescribed exercise and surgical interventions including arthroscopy.


Professor Freitag said that research-based stem cell treatment should not replace traditional treatment.


“It is important for patients to follow their doctor’s advice, which may be to continue with traditional methods such as exercise and weight management, which are important additional factors in achieving a healthy and active lifestyle. ”


“Stem cell therapy may be one piece of the puzzle in the management of arthritis but it does not replace the proactive measures which can be achieved by patients themselves.”


Professor Freitag said an active lifestyle brings all round health benefits.


Osteoarthritis: fast facts

  • Osteoarthritis is the fourth leading cause of disability worldwide
  • Symptomatic osteoarthritis affects 10% of males and 18% of females over the age of 45
  • 80% of patients over the age of 65 have radiological evidence of osteoarthritis.
  • Surgical total joint replacement remains the accepted treatment for knee OA that is uncontrolled by conservative therapies. With joint replacement, up to 20% of patients experience persistent pain and loss of function at 12 months.
  • Without new therapies, the number of knee replacements performed each year in Australia is expected grow significantly. Between 1994 and 2013 the number of annual total knee replacements grew from 12,030 to 46,848 (a 289% increase). Based on expected population growth and the ageing population this is expected to conservatively expand to more than 105,000 by 2046 (an additional 126%).
  • More than 3.85 million people in Australia suffer from arthritis
  • Healthcare costs associated with arthritis are close to $A4 billion annually with the associated burden of disease (years of healthy life lost due to disability) meaning a cost to the economy of more than $A25 billion annually (Arthritis and Osteoporosis Victoria 2013).


See also A "miracle stem cell treatment” has some in the media singing praise but experts don’t believe the hype” from the ABC's Media Watch.


27 May 2019.