Stem Cell Therapy for Ankylosing Spondylitis

Medically Reviewed by Tyler Wheeler, MD on August 02, 2022
5 min read

You’ve got choices when it comes to treatment for ankylosing spondylitis (AS).

There are several drug therapies that can ease inflammation and symptoms like pain and stiffness. But these medications don’t work for everyone. And they may cause uncomfortable or serious side effects for some people.

Scientists hope to one day find a cure for AS. Until then, researchers are studying new ways to manage this chronic inflammatory condition. Get the facts about stem cell therapy for ankylosing spondylitis.

All of the blood cells you have first start out as young stem cells. These specialized cells can make copies of themselves. They also create other cells that do important things that keep us alive, like repair damaged tissue or organs.

During stem cell therapy, a doctor puts healthy stem cells into your blood. The goal is to help your body heal itself from a disease or medical condition. These transplants can come from you (autologous) or someone else (allogenic).

Stem cell transplants mainly come from three sources:

  • Bone marrow
  • Bloodstream (peripheral blood)
  • Umbilical cord blood

Right now, the FDA approves hematopoietic (blood-forming) stem cell transplantation for a limited number of conditions. These are usually cancers or diseases that affect the blood or immune system, including:

Stem cell therapy has the potential to treat many medical conditions. But it’s not yet approved to treat AS. The same goes for arthritis, chronic pain, aging, heart failure, and other health issues.

Beware of any “clinics” that promote unproven stem cell therapy as a cure or treatment for AS. Unregulated products could be harmful.

But there’s hope that stem cell therapy may be a useful FDA-approved treatment down the road. Scientists are studying different kinds of stem cell therapies for AS, including:

Mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs). These are stem cells that help repair bone, cartilage, muscle, and fat. They also keep the immune system in check and control certain kinds of inflammation.

There’s a theory that people with AS may have faulty MSCs. Scientists think stem cells from healthy donors may help fix the immune imbalance that triggers ongoing inflammation and other symptoms of the condition.

Stem cell therapy has been shown to help with other autoimmune conditions, including:

We need much more research on stem cell therapy for AS. The studies that have been done so far are very small or have been done on animals. We need to see results from more studies that look at data from a larger number of people to be able to draw conclusions. But this early research does show some promise. Here’s some of the evidence we have so far:

  • Along with other medication, one study found that umbilical cord MSC therapy eased AS symptoms in all five people who took part in the study. They reported less pain during certain exercises as well as in general.
  • Researchers gave bone marrow-derived MSCs to 31 people with active AS. After four infusions (treatment through a vein in your arm), 7 out of 10 people showed improvement. These results lasted for up to 7 weeks after treatment. But no one’s AS got completely better.
  • Mouse studies show that MSCs can change cells that cause inflammation. Scientists think stem cell therapy may help repair the kind of tissue damage that happens with AS.

Other hematopoietic stem cell transplants (HSCTs). There’s some evidence that HSCT for other health conditions, like blood cancers, may improve symptoms of autoimmune conditions. Scientists call this coincident remission.

Here are some examples:

  • A 75-year-old woman with AS no longer had joint pain after an autologous HSCT for multiple myeloma.
  • One man’s AS-related spine and hip pain got better after he got autologous HSCT for lymphoma.

Scientists aren’t sure why some people with AS feel better after HSCT. It might have something to do with chemotherapy. There’s ongoing research in this area. We may know more in the future.

All medical treatments have their pros and cons. But FDA-approved stem cell therapy goes through a lot of testing before doctors can give it to the general public.

With that said, clinical trials have found that MSC therapy for AS is safe and doesn’t cause severe side effects. But we need more research to know how stem cell therapy for AS will affect large groups of people.

Stem cell therapy doesn’t help everyone. But, so far, it doesn’t seem to make AS-related pain and stiffness worse. In this group, common side effects are more likely to come from the infusion process. The most common ones include:

  • Short fever after the infusion
  • Pain where the needle went in

People who get stem cell therapy for cancer treatment may also get radiation or chemotherapy. These can cause other side effects. That includes a higher risk of bleeding and infection. Talk to your doctor to find out if this is something you need to worry about.

This kind of treatment can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. But a lot of your personal cost depends on how much your insurance will pay. Keep in mind that stem cell therapy for AS is an experimental treatment, and your health plan may not cover any of your costs.

One way to get your costs partially or totally covered is to join a clinical trial. That’s a research study that tests out new medical treatments before they’re approved for the general public.

Ask your doctor if they know of any clinical trials that might be a good fit. They may work with trustworthy drug companies or research groups that test stem cell therapy on people with AS.

You should go over all the pros and cons before you decide to join a clinical trial. Here are some questions to get you started:

  • What is the main purpose of the clinical trial?
  • What do I have to do to take part?
  • Will I have to cover any out-of-pocket costs?
  • How long does the clinical trial last?
  • Will it get in the way of my other medical care?
  • What happens if something goes wrong?

For more information about clinical trials, visit There, you’ll find a database of lots of privately and publicly funded studies around the world. You can also check out the “Participate in Research” section on the website of the Spondylitis Association of America.