Patients with rheumatoid arthritis constantly suffer with joint pain, inflammation, and join destruction.  Rheumatoid arthritis is normally treated with anti-inflammatory drugs, many of which have profound side effects, or injected monoclonal antibodies that are unbelievably expensive and also have bad side effects.

Now stem cell treatments might give rheumatoid arthritis patients new hope.  Mesenchymal stem cells from umbilical cord blood can suppress inflammation and attenuate collagen-induced arthritis in animals.

Professor Zhan-guo Li and a team from Peking University People’s Hospital, China used mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs) to treat arthritis in an animal model of rheumatic arthritis.  Little is known about umbilical cord MSCs, and there has been no previous report about their use in the treatment of RA.  Nevertheless, MSCs can exert profoundly suppress the immune response.  and this encourages their use in the treatment of autoimmune diseases, such as RA.  At present, the most common source of MSCs has been bone marrow.  However, aspirating bone marrow is an invasive procedure and the number and the differentiation potential of bone marrow MSCs decrease with age. In contrast, the collection of umbilical cord MSCs does not require any invasive procedure.

The researchers took immune cells from rheumatoid arthritis patients and showed that the umbilical MSCs could suppress the cells’ proliferation, invasive behavior and inflammatory responses in culture.  Systemic infusion of the umbilical MSCs into mice was shown to significantly reduce the severity of collagen-induced arthritis.

Professor Li said, “RA imparts a massive burden on health services worldwide and none of the currently used agents reaches long term drug-free remission. Therefore, a new and more effective therapy for RA will be very welcome.”

The article is “Therapeutic potential of human umbilical cord mesenchymal stem cells in the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis,” by Yanying Liu, et al., Arthritis Research & Therapy (in press).

A better way to grow embryonic stem cells

Culturing embryonic stem cells can be a genuine pain.  These finicky, constantly-shifting cells require quite a bit of care and growing them can be more art than exact science.

However, a team of researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison has reported the development of a fully defined culture system that could provide much more uniform results and for those cells that might be used for therapy, they could provide a safer product.

The research team, UW-Madison professor of chemistry Laura Kiessling, unveiled an inexpensive system that takes much of the guess work out of culturing the embryonic stem cells.

“It’s a technology that anyone can use,” says Kiessling. “It’s very simple.”

Presently, human embryonic stem cells are cultured for research purposes, mostly. Culture systems have improved over time, but cell scientists still use plastic surfaces covered with mouse cells or mouse proteins to grow batches of human embryonic stem cells. Both embryonic or induced stem cells are grown with these cell culture conditions. These culture conditions, however, increases the chances of contamination of the cells by animal pathogens such as viruses, a serious concern for cells that might be used in therapy.

The new culture system utilizes a synthetic, chemically-made substrate of protein fragments, and peptides that have an affinity for binding stem cells. If used in combination with a defined growth medium, the system devised by the Wisconsin team can culture cells in their undifferentiated states for up to three months and possibly longer. The culture system, according to the new report, also works for induced pluripotent stem cells, those adult cells genetically reprogrammed to behave like embryonic stem cells.

Kiessling noted that embryonic stem cells maintained in this culture system were subsequently tested to see if they could differentiate into desired cell types.  Embryonic stem cells grown in the defined culture medium performed just as well as cells grown in less defined, commercially available cell culture systems.

The first clinical trials involving human embryonic stem cells are underway and that as more tests in human patients are initiated, confidence in the safety of the cells will be central to patients and clinicians.

“The disadvantages of the culture systems commonly used now are that they are undefined – you don’t really know what your cells are in contact with – and there is no uniformity, which means there is batch-to-batch variability,” Kiessling explains. “The system we’ve developed is fully defined and inexpensive.”