TUCSON (KGUN9-TV) – More than 30 million Americans suffer from painful arthritis in their joints, Osteoarthritis. The most common problem is knee pain caused by cartilage breaking down. But some remarkable findings at the UA Arthritis Center could change the way doctors treat these patients.
Since our knees carry most of our body weight, it’s no surprise that the joints can wear out. Too much wear-and-tear on the cartilage covering the bone can cause serious knee pain. Right now, the only solution is replacing the entire joint with metal and plastic parts, even if the damage is just in one area. Sometimes, patients lose the nerves in the area, the plastic can break down over time, and movement is limited.
UA Professor of Orthopedic Surgery Dr. John Szivek and his team knew there had to be a better way. But getting cartilage cells to grow into tissue was tricky, until they discovered stem cells from a patient’s own fat can do the job. “Those cells are very easy to collect from fat tissue,” says Dr. Szivek. “We don’t need very much of the fat tissue. A golf ball size piece of fat from the patient has tens of millions of cells in it.”
The fat is taken out using a procedure similar to liposuction. The stem cells are then extracted, and put on a special scaffold that Dr. Szivek’s team developed. It uses the 3D images from a CT Scan to create an exact match of the patient’s bone structure. “If we place them near a cartilage surface, the cells that are nearby send them signals and those signals turn the stem cells into cartilage cells,” explains Dr. Szivek.
Doctors then put the tiny scaffold in the damaged part of the knee, and within a couple of months, tissue is formed and the cartilage is as good as new. The recovery time is about the same as a total joint replacement, but the incision is significantly smaller.
It could be several more years before the procedure is available to patients.