Curb Your Enthusiasm about Stem Cells for Knee OA
Mark Miller, MD is a professor of orthopaedic surgery at the University of Virginia, founder and co-director of the Miller Review Courses, and former deputy editor for sports medicine at JBJS. In a piece he authored recently for The Conversation, Dr. Miller labeled stem-cell treatments for knee osteoarthritis (OA) “unproven, expensive, and potentially dangerous.”
About 2 years ago, Dr. Miller himself underwent bilateral knee replacements for severe knee arthritis. He understands why patients may fall prey to misleading marketing hype that claims stem cell treatments can help people postpone or entirely avoid knee replacement. (See related OrthoBuzz post.) “My mission,” he writes, is to “try to keep the enthusiasm regarding new cutting-edge options in check,” adding that “the excitement about stem cells has outpaced the science,” especially when it comes to knee OA.
Although stem cell injections have been promoted as a way to regenerate cartilage in arthritic joints, Dr. Miller echoes the American Association of Hip and Knee Surgeons when he says that “there are no proven…therapies that can delay or reverse the progressive joint destruction that occurs with osteoarthritis.” Moreover, the do-no-harm part of the Hippocratic oath requires doctors to give their patients “a clear picture of the potential benefits and side effects of their treatment options,” writes Dr. Miller, who cited a December 20, 2018 New York Times article describing 12 patients who were hospitalized for serious infections after receiving stem cell injections into their knees, shoulders, or spines.
For their part, Dr. Miller says patients should employ the “buyer beware” concept because stem cell therapy for osteoarthritis is not only unproven but also expensive—and usually not covered by medical insurance. The best approach to knee OA, says Dr. Miller, is what is nowadays called shared decision making: “Physicians need to work closely with patients to help them understand their options and which choice may be best for them.”