Human Umbilical Cord Mesenchymal Stem Cells and Rheumatoid Arthritis

A collaborative study between physicians at the Hospital of Chinese People’s Liberation Army and the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center has examined the efficacy of umbilical cord mesenchymal stem cell treatments in combination with drugs in patients with active rheumatoid arthritis (RA).

RA may exist in 0.5-1.0% of the general population. In 2005, an estimated 1.5 million US adults aged ≥ 18 (0.6%) had RA. RA is characterized by chronic inflammation of the joints that causes cartilage and bone damage and deformity. It occurs in women two to three times more often than men.

Treatment of RA requires the administration of disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs), Unfortunately, these drugs have sizable side effects, and less debilitating treatments would be a welcome addition to the treatment options for RA patients.

A paper by Liming Wang and colleagues that was published in Stem Cells and Development examines the efficacy of combining DMARDs with infusions of umbilical cord mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs). Since MSCs have the ability to suppress an overactive immune response, such treatments might provide relief from the symptoms of RA and decrease the dependence on DMARDs.

In this study, Wang and others enrolled 172 RA patients and divided them into two groups: 36 of them were treated with DMARDs alone and 136 were treated with DMARDs plus umbilical cord MSCs (UC-MSCs). Of these 136 patients, 76 were treated for 3 months, 45 for 6 months, and 15 for 8 months. Each of these groups consisted of patients who could and who could not tolerate DMARDs. All patients in the second group received 4 x 10[7] UC-MSCs in 40 milliliters of liquid, but the first group received stem cell “solvent” (whatever that is) without UC-MSCs.

The results clearly showed that UC-MSCs treatments are safe. Patients blood work-ups before and after treatment show no significant differences. Secondly, the DMARD-only group did not show any improvements, but they did not get worse either. The DMARD + UC-MSC group showed quantifiable improvements. These patients reported feeling better in health assessment questionnaires, their serum levels of C-reactive protein and rheumatoid factor went down and their numbers of regulatory T-cells went up. The joint evaluations of these patients also improved (the so-called DAS28 score). All of these are measures of the severity of RA, and in the DMARD + UC-MSC groups, all the these markers improved.

Other markers of RA severity such as IL-6 and TNF-alpha also decreased in the DMARD + UC-MSC patients.

From these data, Wang and others conclude that “UC-MSCs are suitable pllications in the clinic and provide an additional choice to many RA patients.”

The data in this paper are rather clear. The benefits of a single UC-MSC treatment are significant. For this reason, umbilical cord MSCs should be regarded as a potential adjuvant treatment for RA patients.


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Professor of Biochemistry at Spring Arbor University (SAU) in Spring Arbor, MI. Have been at SAU since 1999. Author of The Stem Cell Epistles. Before that I was a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, PA (1997-1999), and Sussex University, Falmer, UK (1994-1997). I studied Cell and Developmental Biology at UC Irvine (PhD 1994), and Microbiology at UC Davis (MA 1986, BS 1984).