A Cambridgeshire clinic has received approval to use adult stem cells to help repair and regenerate damaged tissues and joints.
The Villar Bajwa Practice at the Spire Cambridge Lea Hospital in New Road, Impington, is the first private hospital in the UK to offer the treatment for the hip – tackling the early stages of arthritis.
It is also one of only a handful of sites to do the same for the knee, in which stem cells are used to create more cartilage, helping to preserve the natural hip and knee joints and delay or prevent the need for bigger operations such as joint replacements.
The operation costs about £3,800 on the NHS and slightly more privately.
Consultant orthopaedic surgeon, Richard Villar, runs the Impington practice with Ali Bajwa.
He said: “One of the Holy Grails of my speciality is to encourage gristle – articular cartilage – to heal.
“Gristle is that shiny, white layer on the end of a bone that most will have seen on a chicken drumstick. In humans, it coats the ball of the hip, and the hip socket but it features in many other joints, too – knees, shoulders, elbows, wrists, ankles, toes and even fingers.
“Sadly, the moment a gristle surface is breached, be that by injury or even simple ageing, if the damage remains untreated it can gradually expand until arthritis intervenes.”
Over the years, surgeons have tried a range of methods to address the problem including microfracture, which involves making a sequence of tiny holes in exposed bone to encourage the release of gristle-forming cells from the bone marrow, but it has had limited success.
Now attention has turned to stem cells, which are capable of converting themselves into different tissue in a process known as differentiation.
Surgeons harvest stem cells from the patient before using key hole surgery in either the hip or knee, preparing the arthritic area, and applying the stem cells, normally in combination with microfracture.
Mr Villar added: “Early results for humans, both in the laboratory and clinical practice, are showing great promise for orthopaedic surgery. Yet will stem cells mean that one day hips and knees will no longer need to be replaced?
“I suspect it is impossible to say right now. Yet what is true is that within each of us lie many tiny cells – stem cells. They are not far from the surface, and may just carry the solution we have been seeking for so many years.”