Adult Stem Cell Therapy 101
The initial concept of regenerative medicine dates all the way back to 330 BC, when Aristotle observed that a lizard could grow back the lost tip of its tail. Slowly over time, humans have grown to understand regenerative medicine, and how it may change the way we treat diseases. It's been only relatively recently that adult (non-embryonic) stem cell therapy, a type of regenerative medicine, has gathered fast momentum. The below video illustrates key (not all) highlights in how stem cell therapy research has progressed over the last several decades.
What are adult stem cells?
Adult (non-embryonic) stem cells are unspecialized or undifferentiated cells, which means they have yet to develop into a specific cell type. Found in most adult tissues, adult stem cells have two primary properties:
- They are able to self-renew, i.e., they have the ability to go through numerous cycles of cell division while maintaining their undifferentiated state.
- They have, as a group, unlimited potency, i.e., they have the capacity to grow into any cell type.
Simply put, adult stem cells have the potential to grow into any of the body's more than 200 cell types.
Where are they found?
Adult stem cells have been found in most parts of the body, including brain, bone marrow, blood vessels, skin, teeth and heart. There are typically a small number of stem cells in each tissue. Due to their small number and rate of division (growth), it is difficult to grow adult stem cells in large numbers. Scientists at the Midwest Stem Cell Therapy Center are working to understand how to grow large amounts of adult stem cells in cell culture. These scientists are also working with more "primitive" stem cells, isolated from the umbilical cord after normal births.
These stem cells are in much higher abundance than in adult tissues, can be differentiated into several different cell types, and their capacity to divide is much faster, making them good candidates for applications in treating injury or disease. An example of this is the use of these cells in treating Graft vs. Host Disease (GvHD), a condition which affects approximately 40-50% of patients receiving allogeneic transplants (i.e., transplant from another person) for blood cancers by taking advantage of a key immunosuppressive characteristic the cells possess.
How do stem cells become treatments?
The practice of stem cell therapy is nothing new: One of the oldest forms of it is the bone marrow transplant, which has been actively practiced since the late 1960s. Since then, scientists haven't slowed down with the advancement of adult stem cell therapy. Every day, scientists worldwide are researching new ways we can harness stem cells to develop effective new treatments for a host of diseases. In the case of a patient suffering with a blood cancer such as leukemia, a bone marrow transplant will replace their unhealthy blood cells with healthy ones. This same concept - inserting healthy cells so they may multiply and form new tissue or repair diseased tissue - can be applied to other forms of stem cell therapy.
Stem cell research continues to advance as scientists learn how an organism develops from a single cell and how healthy cells replace damaged cells. For example, the Midwest Stem Cell Therapy Center is collaborating to investigate the potential of a select group of umbilical cord stem cells in the treatment of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS, or Lou Gerhig's disease). Developing a stem cell treatment that has been shown to be both safe and efficacious is not as simple as removing stem cells from one part of the body and putting it in another.
Working with appropriate regulatory agencies, the Midwest Stem Cell therapy Center is conducting R&D activities that will permit the Center to conduct human clinical trials on a variety of diseases over the next several years. This process - similar to the development of a new drug - will, when completed, assure patients in both clinical trials and eventually patients using the approved product, that the product is safe for use in humans and the stem cells being administered are effective in treating the injury or disease they are being used for.
When considering a cell therapy treatment, it is important to understand how your treatment will be administered and ensure that the provider is well-qualified. Stem cell clinics have popped up around the world, touting 100% success, however, in many cases these experimental treatments have yet to be evaluated by the FDA (Food & Drug Administration) or other regulatory agencies in their countries of origin. The FDA warns patients to take caution with unregulated stem cell therapies. Reputable centers, including the MSCTC, are working with the FDA to develop regulations that protect the health of the patient and hold providers to high standards of treatment. Without these regulations in place, unqualified providers may endanger patients' health. For example, as in organ transplants, patients who receive stem cell therapy are at risk of their immune system rejecting the transplant. To avoid this, immune system-suppressing drugs must be taken. Further, if stem cells are not manipulated correctly, the receiving patient can be exposed to bacteria, fungi or viruses which have been picked up during the manipulations of the stem cells, or, in some cases, receive cells that are not appropriate for use in treating a specific injury or disease.
If you're considering stem cell therapy treatment in the United States, proceed cautiously. Ask your physician questions and be comfortable with the procedure and risks before accepting treatment. Consider asking these questions:
- Is the therapy reviewed or approved by the FDA or part of a clinical trial? The FDA approves therapies after appropriate testing. To participate in a clinical trial, you must sign a consent form. The consent form also identifies the Institutional Review Board (IRB) that assures the protection of the rights and welfare of human subjects. To review clinical trial information, please visit ClinicalTrials.gov, a database of privately and publicly funded clinical studies conducted around the world.
- What is the procedure? Ask for details, including a need for immunosuppression, hospitalization, other drugs/treatments or repeat treatments.
- What is the source of the cells and/or biological molecules? What is actually being injected?
- What is the training and licensing of the physician? What is the safety record of the physician and clinic? Do they have a familiarity with the scientific literature?
- Are there any previous results with this procedure? How many have been treated? Is there any publication of this or similar work? (You should require more more than claims and testimonials.)
- What are the potential outcomes and risks, including adverse reactions?
- What are the alternative treatments?
- What are the costs, including breakdown of items?
- Is a follow-up visit required?
If you are considering treatment in another country, then learn about international regulations that cover products in that country.