Arthritis Research UK has launched a £6 million experimental tissue engineering centre, aiming to regenerate bone and cartilage by using patients' own stem cells to repair the joint damage caused by osteoarthritis.

The exploratory research has the potential to revolutionize the treatment of osteoarthritis, which causes pain and disability in 8 million people in the UK. Treatments for early osteoarthritis are usually limited to nonsurgical options such as painkillers and physiotherapy.

Patients currently undergo joint replacement operations, but usually only when the disease has deteriorated to a severe stage.

Researchers aim to treat early osteoarthritis by introducing adult stem cells and other types of cell into damaged joints, and repairing the damage through less invasive operations such as "keyhole" surgery within five years.

"Keyhole and minimally invasive operations for early arthritis have been in development for some years, and we propose to improve upon these techniques and work towards more widely available treatments. This requires research at all levels of the process, from laboratory to bedside. We hope that elements of this approach will reach the patient in the operating theatre within five years," said the centre's director, Professor Andrew McCaskie.

"It's hugely exciting. At the moment, joint replacement surgery is the most effective treatment we have, but people with osteoarthritis cope with years of increasing pain and disability until they reach the point where surgery becomes a viable option," said Professor Alan Silman, medical director of Arthritis Research UK.

Researchers also hope to develop a bank of universal donor cells for use in the patient, making treatment cheaper and more widely available.

The £6 million Arthritis Research UK Tissue Engineering Centre is funded by a core grant of £2.5 million over five years from Arthritis Research UK with a further £3.4 million pledged by the four participating universities. The centre will bring together leading clinicians, engineers and biologists from research and clinical groups.