Stem cells are immature cells that can divide and change into different types of mature cells with different jobs. There are 2 main types of stem cells:
Stem cells are not an approved treatment for osteoarthritis (OA) in Canada. Treating OA with stem cells is still experimental (under study). In Alberta, using stem cells to treat OA only happens in research studies.
More research is needed before stem cells can become a standard treatment for OA. Researchers are studying stem cells to find out:
Most stem cells used for the experimental treatment of OA are adult MSCs. Researchers can easily collect them from fat or bone marrow.
MSCs are able to turn into cartilage, bone, muscle, tendon, ligaments, or fat, depending on the type of tissue that surrounds them. This is why researchers are studying MSCs in stem cell treatments for OA.
Research shows that MSCs release anti-inflammatory factors that help heal and lessen pain. When they are injected into a joint, some studies show they may help relieve pain, swelling, and loss of movement.
Stem cells can also be used to make an artificial tissue in a lab through a process called tissue engineering. This lab-made tissue can then be put into a joint to help rebuild (repair) damaged bone, ligaments, and cartilage.
The safety of a stem cell treatment highly depends on:
Research to date shows that stem cell treatments using a patient’s own cells tend to be safe for OA. Most injection-based treatments use a patient’s own MSCs (called autologous MSCs) taken from their bone marrow or fat.
Some stem cell treatments use stem cells donated from other people’s tissues (called allogeneic MSCs). There are possible risks when donor stem cells are used. These risks include:
If you decide to have a stem cell treatment for OA, you will need to have follow-up to watch for unwanted side effects.
Research so far doesn’t show that a stem cell treatment alone cures OA. It also hasn’t shown that the treatment can rebuild a damaged joint in patients who have been living a while with OA or who have advanced OA.
Patients have had different responses to this treatment. Some have had long-term pain relief that lasts more than a year while others have not had any less pain. More research is still needed to know if stem cell treatments work well for OA and why some people find the treatment works better than others.
A stem cell treatment for OA isn’t available in Alberta. You may see clinics in other countries, like the USA or Mexico, advertise stem cell treatments to Canadians. At this time, the Bone and Joint Health Strategic Clinical Network (BJH SCN) doesn’t endorse any of these clinics.
If you’re thinking about having a stem cell treatment for OA outside of Alberta, it’s important to know that:
It’s important to remember that using stem cells to treat OA is still under study. It’s an experimental treatment and there isn’t strong evidence that it works.
Please be aware there are treatments called “regenerative therapies” that are sometimes called stem cell treatments. But these treatments don’t use stem cells. These include platelet rich plasma (PRP) treatments. It’s more correct to call this type of treatment a “cell therapy” since it uses a type of blood cell called a platelet.
Stem cell treatments are not available in Alberta. If you are thinking about a stem cell treatment for OA outside of Alberta, you may want to ask the following questions. This will help you to learn more about the safety and quality of care of the clinic or provider.
If you would like to learn more about research on stem cells for OA in Alberta, contact the Scientific Office of the Bone and Joint Health Strategic Clinical Network (BJH SCN) at
Current as of: February 27, 2020
Author: Bone and Joint Health Strategic Clinical Network, Alberta Health Services
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