Scientists at the McEwen Centre for Regenerative Medicine in Toronto have made a breakthrough in stem cell research; a team of scientists, led by Dr. April Craft and Dr. Gordon Keller has successfully generated cartilage tissue from stem cells.

Articular cartilage tissue, which is found within joints, is made of a particular type of cell called an articular chondrocyte. In patients with osteoarthritis, this cartilage has degenerated to make movement painful and difficult. The ability to produce articular chondrocytes from stem cells could potentially help regenerate articular cartilage tissue for patients with osteoarthritis.

Pluripotent stem cells (PSC) are stem cells that can differentiate into (or generate) many different types of cells in the body. Dr Craft states that, because “[articular cartilage tissue] is specified prenatally,” it is limited in its ability “to regenerate in the adult once injured.” The scientists, therefore, studied PSC model systems in mice to determine how they could generate articular chondrocytes from PSCs. By adding a specific combination of signaling factors, the team was able to produce the articular chondrocytes that make up articular cartilage tissue, in vitro. The researchers detailed their findings in the Nature Biotechnology journal in May.

There are still many challenges to be overcome before this treatment can be used in a clinical setting. “The severity of [osteoarthritis] and cartilage degeneration varies among patients and it may be difficult to design a one-size-fits all type repair strategy,” Craft noted. To address this challenge, scientists will have to study “cartilage repair in a large animal model,” although “there isn’t a universal animal model for joint repair,” she continued. Compounding these concerns is the fact that each organism we study comes with its own unique set of properties making the transition from mouse to human a difficult one.

Currently, there is no cure for this disease that affects one in ten North Americans. Craft recognizes that joint replacement surgeries as well as the current therapies for pain minimization are inadequate. She hopes that the methods that she has helped to discover will inspire new treatment plans for cell and tissue repair.

Craft appreciates that in order for this discovery to help patients, a model that translates knowledge from the laboratory to the clinic must be in place. Collaborating with other clinicians can help these scientists design translational models appropriate for both the patients and the clinics. “Collaboration is an essential part of science,” says Craft, who feels privileged to be involved in biomedical research with people who are enthusiastic about science. At the end of the day, these scientists hope that their research will help inspire new treatment methods that will increase the quality of life for patients living with osteoarthritis.