Stem cell research is a much debated and controversial topic in modern medicine. However, the controversy around embryonic stem cells has also sparked an interest in a less ethically risky option: using stem cells taken from adults to treat various diseases.
To understand the amazing impact stem cell use can have for modern medicine you should first understand what a stem cell is.
At first, all life comes from a single cell. Humans grow from just one fertilized egg into a tremendously complex organism. Each organ has its own specialized cells that "know" how to carry out their own special functions. A stem cell, however, is like that very first cell we all originally come from: it is able to become any cell we need it to be.
In fact, the fertilized egg is basically our very first stem cell; from it, we develop all the other cell types found within the human body. Adults still have stem cells in their tissues as they grow and adult stem cells have been collected from bone marrow for many years. They are different from embryonic stem cells because they have passed a certain point of "no return,"meaning they cannot develop into an organ; however the possibilities are still tremendous as they can become different cell types.
Adult stem cells can be found in the umbilical cord blood and placenta when babies are born, and can be saved or "banked" to offer new parents a certain peace of mind. Although stem cells from cord blood are the child's "own," and therefore can be transplanted without the risk of rejection, there is a limit to the number of cells that can be acquired.
"Some treatments may need more cells than you can extract from cord blood," says Dr. Julio Guerra, director of sales and marketing at Neostem (www.neostem.com), a company specializing in the collection, processing and long-term storage of adult stem cells for one's own use (autologous).
"It can save a child's life if certain blood disorders develop in the early years, but there may not be enough cells to treat an older child," Dr. Guerra continued. "Adult stem cells could hold the key to life-long health by facilitating treatment of devastating diseases and as a result increasing longevity."
Banked adult stem cells can be used at a future date to treat a wide array of diseases, such as heart disease, osteoporosis, arthritis, and many other diseases. Because these are a person's own cells, there is no concern about finding a matched donor.
"A great benefit to using one's own adult stem cells is the fact that you do not have to worry about rejection of cells since your own cells are used for your treatment," noted Neostem's CEO and Chairman Dr. Robin Smith, M.D., M.B.A.
To place this in perspective, consider that less than 20 percent of patients who need a bone marrow transplant actually find a match in time to treat their disease.
There are currently over 160 clinical trials using autologous stem cells. New studies describing the clinical benefits of adult stem cells in the treatment of diseases are being published almost daily. Countless research teams around the world are trying to study the possibility of using adult stem cells to grow skin, improve muscle, build cartilage, and regenerate the vital cells of a failing organ.
In addition, growing interest in regenerative medicine is also driving the demand for convenient stem cell banking methods. The results so far are definitely promising.
-- The Journal of American Medical Association reported a study where 50 percent of patients with Lupus (SLE) treated with stem cells were disease-free five years after treatment.
-- The Journal of Rheumatology showed that 73 percent of individuals with rheumatoid arthritis were able to be controlled on medication after being treated with stem cells.
-- The journal Nature even reported the use of adult stem cells to repair vision of blind mice.
We will likely continue to see more results of clinical trials using adult stem cells to address other diseases such as diabetes, wound healing and multiple sclerosis, to name a few. If these techniques are successful, we would have much less need for donor organs; we would improve conditions that previously decreased someone's lifespan or quality of life, such as diabetes, blindness, Parkinson's, Alzheimer's; multiple sclerosis could be cured.
According to Dr. Guerra, clinical trials are already under way in the cardiovascular department:
"As far as treatments go, great advances are being made in improving cardiac status of those individuals with end-stage heart disease and repairing the damaged tissue of those having heart attacks," Dr. Guerra said. "Additionally, you do not have the potential issue of tumor formation which has been seen with embryonic cells," he added.
Now adults have the option to collect and save their own stem cells through a non-invasive and safe procedure, a bio-insurance for future use, and one that may just save your life.