Can stem cells make drugs to stop osteoarthritis?

Dr Jiao Jiao Li

Dr Jiao Jiao Li plans to use stem cells as biofactories to make drugs to reduce inflammation and encourage repair in painful osteoarthritic joints.

Osteoarthritis is a hugely debilitating joint disease with few treatment options.  Injecting stem cells to repair damaged joints has shown inconsistent and poor long-term results and the potential for adverse side effects.

“I believe it would be safer and more effective to use stem cells to create healing biomolecules and inject those instead,” says Jiao Jiao, a bioengineer at University of Technology Sydney.

Jiao Jiao works across disciplines, using artificial intelligence, bioengineering, nanotechnology and stem cell science to develop new stem cell-derived treatments – initially for osteoarthritis but potentially for a wide range of other diseases.

She has a track record in bone repair, having developed a ceramic-based scaffold that becomes populated by the patient’s own stem cells to regrow sections of bone.

In recognition of her leadership in the field, Jiao Jiao has received one of two 2023 $60,000 Metcalf Prizes from the National Stem Cell Foundation of Australia.

Osteoarthritis is a painful condition caused by the breakdown of cartilage in joints. It mostly affects the hands, spine and joints such as hips, knees and ankles.

But the damage goes far beyond the pain it causes.

“The inflammation and the lack of mobility mean people with osteoarthritis have an increased risk of long-term heart disease, liver disease, obesity, diabetes, and other potentially fatal diseases,” Jiao Jiao explains.

There is no cure. Drugs and exercise can ease the pain but can’t stop progression of the disease.

Earlier in her career, Jiao Jiao co-invented a ceramic-based bone scaffold that creates the right conditions for regrowing sections of bone using a patient’s own resident stem cells to populate with living tissue. It has been licensed by an Australian orthopedics company to translate to the clinic.

She’s now taking this expertise in a new direction to tackle the problem of osteoarthritis.

“One of the great things about stem cells is that they secrete nanosized membrane-bound packets of bioactive molecules that can be used as therapeutics,” says Jiao Jiao.

Injections of these beneficial biomolecules would avoid the potential pitfalls of injecting living stem cells directly into diseased joints.

“Current clinical trials of stem cell therapy for osteoarthritis may show short-term improvements, but struggle to show consistent results or sustained, long-term benefits, even after multiple injections,” she explains.

Injected stem cells can also be affected by the disease environment of the joint, effectively becoming part of the problem they’re meant to solve. In contrast, the bioactive molecules are not affected by the disease environment and act as a drug to both stop pain and disease progression. Jiao Jiao has seen promising results when these have been applied in the lab to diseased cells from patients with osteoarthritis.

The Metcalf Prize will help Jiao Jiao pursue her pioneering research program combining machine learning with stem cell culture, to progress her work to animal trials, and investigate ways of scaling up the process. If all goes well, and she finds the right industry partner, she hopes to be designing human clinical trials in 6 to 8 years.

“I’m passionate about diversity in science, so it’s a real honour to be the first female bioengineer to win a Metcalf Prize,” says Jiao Jiao. “It’s exciting to be working at the frontiers of stem cell science, where we’re bringing together the diverse fields of engineering, nanotechnology, computational science and regenerative medicine to help people in need.”

Osteoarthritis facts[1]

  • Osteoarthritis is a painful condition caused by the breakdown of cartilage in joints. It mostly affects the hands, spine and joints such as hips, knees and ankles.
  • Osteoarthritis is the most common form of arthritis in Australia. An estimated 2.2 million (9.3%) Australians have this condition, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) 2017–18 National Health Survey (NHS).
  • Osteoarthritis cost the Australian health system an estimated $3.9 billion in 2019–20.
  • 1 in 5 Australians (22%) over the age of 45 have osteoarthritis.


Photos for media use (Credit: University of Technology Sydney)