A pioneering stem cell therapy is to be tested on UK osteoarthritis patients for the first time.
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Doctors hope the procedure, which involves implanting lab-grown stem cells in affected joints, will eventually lead to radical new treatments and reduce the number of people requiring surgery.
Osteoarthritis currently affects about eight million people in the UK, a number which is expected to rise as the population ages.
About 60,000 hip replacement operations, and a similar number of knee replacement operations, are carried out in the UK each year.
The Arthritis Research UK-funded project is the first early patient trial in this country aimed at using stem cells to treat the condition.
Scientists hope to repair damaged knee cartilage using cells extracted from patients’ bone marrow.
The procedure involves mesenchymal stem cells being removed using keyhole surgery, before being cultured in a laboratory for three weeks.
The new cells are then implanted in damaged areas, where it is hoped they will go on to form new cartilage.
Patients will also receive cultured cartilage cells called chondocytes - more mature cells that are already used to repair small areas of joint damage, but not osteoarthritis - in tandem with the primary procedure.
Up to 70 people with established knee osteoarthritis will take part in the study, due to be launched at the Robert Jones and Agnes Hunt Orthopaedic Hospital in Oswestry, Shropshire, before the end of this year.
The trial is part of a £500,000 five-year research programme.