Are mesenchymal stem cells in rheumatoid arthritis the good or bad guys?

Cosimo De Bari*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalLiterature reviewpeer-review

63 Citations (Scopus)
11 Downloads (Pure)


The advancements in our understanding of the inflammatory and immune mechanisms in rheumatoid arthritis (RA) have fuelled the development of targeted therapies that block cytokine networks and pathogenic immune cells, leading to a considerable improvement in the management of RA patients. Nonetheless, no therapy is curative and clinical remission does not necessarily correspond to non-progression of joint damage. Hence, the biomedical community has redirected scientific efforts and resources towards the investigation of other biological aspects of the disease, including the mechanisms driving tissue remodelling and repair. In this regard, stem cell research has attracted extraordinary attention, with the ultimate goal to develop interventions for the biological repair of damaged tissues in joint disorders, including RA. The recent evidence that mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs) with the ability to differentiate into cartilage are present in joint tissues raises an opportunity for therapeutic interventions via targeting intrinsic repair mechanisms. Under physiological conditions, MSCs in the joint are believed to contribute to the maintenance and repair of joint tissues. In RA, however, the repair function of MSCs appears to be repressed by the inflammatory milieu. In addition to being passive targets, MSCs could interact with the immune system and play an active role in the perpetuation of arthritis and progression of joint damage. Like MSCs, fibroblast-like synoviocytes (FLSs) are part of the stroma of the synovial membrane. During RA, FLSs undergo proliferation and contribute to the formation of the deleterious pannus, which mediates damage to articular cartilage and bone. Both FLSs and MSCs are contained within the mononuclear cell fraction in vitro, from which they can be culture expanded as plastic-adherent fibroblast-like cells. An important question to address relates to the relationship between MSCs and FLSs. MSCs and FLSs could be the same cell type with functional specialisation or represent different functional stages of the same stromal lineage. This review will discuss the roles of MSCs in RA and will address current knowledge of the relative identity between MSCs and FLSs. It will also examine the immunomodulatory properties of the MSCs and the potential to harness such properties for the treatment of RA.

Original languageEnglish
Article number113
Number of pages9
JournalArthritis Research & Therapy
Publication statusPublished - 1 May 2015

Bibliographical note

I am grateful for support for my research from Arthritis Research UK (grants 19271, 19429, 19667, 20050). I would like to thank Dr Anke Roelofs for critically reviewing the manuscript.




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