A stem cell technique to treat the common bone disease osteonecrosis is being pioneered at Southampton General Hospital in the UK.
The procedure, developed by orthopaedic surgeon Dr Doug Dunlop and Professor Richard Oreffo, a researcher in Musculoskeletal Science at Southampton University, uses stem cells extracted from patients' bone marrow. Many of the people being treated would otherwise have to undergo a hip operation and if shown to work, the technique could reduce considerably the need for hip replacements.
In osteonecrosis poor blood supply causes severe bone damage eventually leading to arthritis. For the new procedure, the patient's stem cells are mixed with cleaned and crushed bone from another source. This mixture is used to replace the dead and damaged tissue that has been removed from the joint.
Professor Oreffo explained: 'By using stem cells to send out chemical signals to blood vessels, we hope the body will continue to create new vessels in the hip which supply enough nutrients to maintain bone strength'.
He added: 'Although this work is still ongoing, several patients who have had the procedure have reacted very well and, if we get the results we are hoping for, these patients won't need to have their hip joints replaced — they should be fixed completely'.
Incidence of osteonecrosis is rising in the UK with around 4,000 cases a year. In Asia, where the number of cases is proportionally higher, and osteonecrosis is the most common cause of arthritis. The condition is usually diagnosed between the ages of 30 and 50, and drugs are prescribed to slow its progression.