What is a Stem Cell Treatment?
What exactly are Stem Cells?
Stem cells, as their name might suggest, are cells from which other, different types of cells with specialised functions can, under the right conditions, be generated. In the body itself or in the laboratory stem cells divide and produce daughter cells, these offshoots can either become stem-cells themselves or grow into specialised cells like blood, brain, heart muscle, or bone cells. There are two types of stem cell: embryonic stem cells derived from human embryos and grown in the laboratory and non-embryonic or ‘adult’ stem cells found in small numbers in most adult tissues such as bone marrow.
Cells with what seem like almost magical self-generative power understandably creates great excitement among the public and the medical and scientific community because of their potential for repair and regeneration of various parts of the human body and for the testing of new drugs, particularly in crucial areas like cancer research.
Which diseases and conditions are responsive to Stem Cell Treatment?
It was only relatively recently - in 1981 - that scientists first took embryonic stem cells from mouse embryos, which then, in the late 1990s led to the successful removal of stem cells from human embryos and their growth in the laboratory. There was another breakthrough in 2006 when researchers realised that some specialised adult cells, such as skin or blood cells, could be ‘reprogrammed’ genetically to assume stem-cell properties. This third type of stem-cell is known as an induced pluripotent stem-cell or iPSC. The important point is that the science of stem-cells is still in its infancy, and though their potential may be quite mind-blogging, their application so far has been fairly limited.
The most successful and widely-used stem-cell treatment to date is the transplantation of blood stem-cells to treat diseases and conditions of the blood and immune system or to bring the blood system back to health after treatments for specific cancers such as leukaemia.
Though research never sleeps, stem-cell treatment is also of growing importance in orthopaedics, and is used in helping to repair bone fractures caused by trauma, tumours or osteoporosis, the latter a major problem in societies with increasing older populations. Bone regeneration may improve more effectively and rapidly when stem cells are used, often in tandem with biomaterials, scaffolds and other growth inducers.
Skin grafts grown from stem-cells have been used successfully in the treatment of severe burns on large areas of the body. And the European Commission recently gave marketing approval to the first advanced therapy medicinal product, developed in Italy, and based on a particular type of eye stem-cell, a limbal stem-cell, which can repair damage to, or deterioration of, the cornea (the clear front part of the eye). November 2019 saw the first patient treated with the product, courtesy of Britain's National Health Service (1).
Generally, stem-cell research provides great hope for future medical advances. Simply observing how stem cells grow into the cells in the organs and tissues in which they're implanted allows a better understanding of how conditions and diseases develop. The possible beneficiaries of such insights include those with spinal cord injuries, Type 1 diabetes, Parkinson's Disease, Alzheimer's, heart disease, cancer and osteoarthritis.
Another invaluable use of stem cells is, as mentioned above, the development and testing of new drugs, though the cost to companies of investing very large sums in drug development can be prohibitive (1).
The Controversial Side of Stem-Cell Treatment
Because adult stem cells appear to be less versatile than embryonic stem cells, and are more likely to have acquired abnormalities, researchers tend to prefer the embryonic variety. These are taken from early stage embryos, formed after a woman's egg has been fertilised by male sperm during in vitro fertilisation. Stem cells are extracted from those embryos surplus to those implanted back into the womb of the owner of the eggs or another recipient.
The use of embryos for any kind of medical research has always raised ethical questions and generated controversy, particularly for those with strongly-held religious beliefs. Many countries have introduced regulatory legislation over the past couple of decades, which of course varies widely as regards strength and monitoring of implementation. In Europe, Italy and Germany have the most restrictive laws on stem cell research, while Belgium, Sweden and the UK are the least restrictive. In the United States, despite, or perhaps because the country's share of the global stem cell market is set to increase, it remains a highly contentious political and ethical issue.
Stem Cell Treatment Exploitation
As with any new medical advance which holds out the hope of treatment and cure there are charlatans eager to take as much cash advantage as possible and anyone seeking stem cell treatment should be wary of clinics or facilities brazenly promising treatments which have no supporting medical evidence or validity.
In whichever country a stem cell based treatment is being sought it's important to research the regulations, if any, that cover stem-cell related products. If the chosen country doesn't require regulatory control of clinical studies it may be difficult to decide if the treatment is safe. But if in any doubt whatsoever consult a trusted source of medical advice, perhaps through your own doctor.
(1) 'Stem Cells in Drug Development'
May 31st 2019, viewed February 18th 2020
(2) 'First Patient Dosed with Chiesi's Holocar'
November 1st 2019, viewed February 17th 2020
'Stem Cells: What they are and what they do'
Updated June 8th 2019, viewed February 17th 2020
'Stem Cell Information'
February 15th 2020, viewed February 17th 2020
'Stem Cell Research Around the World'
February 2nd 2020, viewed February 18th 2020