- What is stem cell therapy, and more questions of yours, answered.
- What diseases or conditions can stem cell therapy treat?
- Find out the risks and possible complications of stem cell therapy.
What Are Stem Cells?
Stem cells generate new cells for the body as it grows and replaces damaged or lost specialized cells. They can do so due to two distinct properties:
- divide indefinitely to produce new cells
- change into the other types of cells that make up the body as they divide
Types Of Stem Cells
There are three main types of stem cells:
Embryonic Stem Cells
Embryonic stem cells replenish an embryo’s cell count as it grows and develops into a baby. These stem cells are pluripotent, which means they can differentiate into any cell found in the body.
Adult Stem Cells
Adult stem cells generate new cells as an organism grows and replaces damaged cells. Adult stem cells are multipotent, which means they can differentiate into specific types of cells in the body rather than any cell. Blood stem cells (or ‘hematopoietic’ stem cells) can only replace various types of blood cells. Skin (or ‘epithelial’) stem cells generate the various cell types that comprise our skin and hair.
Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells
Scientists create induced pluripotent stem cells, or ‘iPS cells,’ in the laboratory. ‘Induced’ stem cells are created in the laboratory by reprogramming normal adult cells such as skin or blood cells to become stem cells. Like embryonic stem cells, they are pluripotent, which means they can differentiate into any cell type.
Stem Cell Therapy Uses
Stem cells have the potential to be used to generate new organs for transplantation:
- Currently, damaged organs can be replaced with healthy organs obtained from donors; however, donated organs may be rejected by the body because the immune system perceives them as foreign. Patients’ induced pluripotent stem cells could be used to grow new organs that are less likely to be rejected.
- Blood stem cells are being used to provide healthy blood cells to people with certain blood conditions, such as thalassemia and cancer patients who have lost their blood stem cells during treatment.
- Skin stem cells can be used to regenerate skin for individuals who have sustained severe burns.
- Age-related macular degeneration (AMD) is an example of a disease that stem cells may one day be used to treat: Some people with age-related macular degeneration lose sight due to retinal pigment epithelium (RPE) cells failing to function correctly.
Scientists are using induced pluripotent stem cells to generate new RPE cells in the laboratory, which can then be transplanted into a patient’s eye to replace damaged cells. 1
What Is Stem Cell Therapy?
Stem cell therapy, also known as regenerative medicine, helps the body repair itself by using stem cells or their derivatives to help the body repair itself.
Concerns About Safety
Though there are benefits and risks for virtually any medical treatment, unproven or untested stem cell therapy treatments can be tremendously dangerous.
It can be challenging to distinguish between physicians conducting legitimate clinical trials and clinics touting unproven treatments. One common point of differentiation is how the treatment is marketed. While patients are referred to most specialized physicians, clinics offering stem cell treatments commonly market directly to patients, frequently using persuasive language on the internet, Facebook, and newspaper advertisements.
Clinics peddling unproven stem cell treatments frequently embellish their offerings’ benefits and rely on patient testimonials to back up their claims.
Attendees at a 2016 FDA public workshop, for example, discussed several cases of unfortunate, severe consequences as the result of stem cell therapy gone wrong. One patient went blind after receiving an injection of stem cells into the eye. Another patient received a spinal cord injection, which resulted in developing a spinal tumour. 2
Adult stem cells pose no ethical dilemmas. However, there has been controversy surrounding how human embryonic stem cells are obtained in recent years. The embryo is destroyed during the process of harvesting embryonic stem cells. This raises ethical concerns for those who believe it is morally wrong to kill a fertilized embryo.
Contrary to popular belief, opponents believe that an embryo is a living human being. They think that fertilized eggs should not be used in research and argue that the embryo should be accorded the same rights as any other human being and that these rights should be safeguarded.
On the other hand, proponents of stem cell research believe that embryos are not yet human. The researchers note that they obtained consent from the couple whose eggs and sperm were used to create the embryo. Additionally, supporters argue that because the fertilized eggs produced during in-vitro fertilization are discarded anyway, they could be put to better use for scientific research.
A Common Misconception About Stem Cell Therapy, Debunked
Stem Cells from Your Own Body Are Safe for You
When cells from your own body are used in treatments, they are not always safe.
Hypothetically, if your own cells were used in a transplant, your immune system wouldn’t attack them. Autologous transplantation is the process of using a patient’s own cells. However, the procedures used to acquire, grow, and then reintroduce the cells into the body would entail some serious risks. The following are just a few of the known risks associated with autologous stem cell treatments:
When cells are removed from the body, there is a risk that they will become contaminated with viruses, bacteria, or other pathogens that could cause disease upon reintroduction.
Clinician manipulation of cells may impair their normal function, including those that control cell growth.
It is critical how and where cells are reintroduced into your body, and some clinics inject cells into areas where they are generally not present or belong. 3
Stem cells have the potential to have a profound effect on human health. There is, however, some debate over the usage of human embryos in these treatments.
On a positive note, scientists may be able to alleviate these concerns by developing a new method for converting adult stem cells into pluripotent stem cells capable of transforming into any cell.
This would get rid of the need for research using embryonic stem cells. These advancements demonstrate how far stem cell research has come. Even with the current advances, much more thorough research must be conducted before scientists can develop successful stem cell therapy for those who need it. 4