For many years, the medical community has been expecting a major breakthrough in regenerative medicine involving stem cell therapy, and while progress has been made, there are still only a few approved clinical applications. Stem cell therapy is a relatively simple concept: use undifferentiated from an adult or fetus to grow into healthy tissue in a patient with lost or damaged tissue.
Regenerative medicine has been hailed as a revolutionary new form of medicine because it doesn’t merely manage symptoms but actually impacts the underlying health condition. For example, instead of supplying insulin for diabetes patients, regenerative medicine would restore the tissue that supplies insulin. This kind of medicine could reshape how physicians treat many health conditions including
- Autoimmune disorders
- Heart disease
- Neurological conditions
The potential for regenerative medicine and stem cell therapy is enormous, but the many challenges in producing safe, effective therapies has proven daunting. That is why stem cell therapy has only been approved for 15 clinical applications by the Food and Drug Administration so far.
The Science of Stem Cell Therapy
At the heart of regenerative medicine is stem cells, a special kind of cell that can mature into any kind of cell in the human body. Stem cells may reproduce new stem cells indefinitely, making them an invaluable resource for both researchers and clinicians. Under specific physiological conditions, stem cells can be induced to mature into specialized cells like muscle, bone or nerves. These cells are found in places in the body like bone marrow or the gastrointestinal tract where they replenish lost cells.
It is relatively easy to harvest and implant stem cells, but it is much more difficult to induce differentiation in a controlled and safe manner. In the past, scientists primarily worked with embryonic stem cells because they believed they were only found in early stages of life. This, of course, sparked an enormous debate among medical scholars as well as the general public. We have since learned that stem cells are found in adults and can be used with similar efficacy. Although embryonic stem cells exhibit more plasticity, i.e. ability to differentiate into a wider variety of cells, adult stem cells also possess some limited plasticity.
In recent years, medical researchers have been able to reprogram adult stem cells so that they have the same cellular variability as embryonic stem cells. This has been accomplished by altering the genes in adult stem cells. Research is still ongoing into both types of cells, but this breakthrough could soon obviate the need for embryonic tissue.
Risks Associated with Stem Cell Therapy
Regenerative medicine and stem cell therapy has the potential to change medicine and our world. It is not inconceivable that regenerative medicine and stem cell therapy could restore lost physiological function that is currently beyond our capacity. Some experts even contend that this field could help extend human lives years or decades.
However, before you seek out stem cell therapy, you should also understand how limited this treatment currently is. There are important reasons why the FDA has only approved a handful of stem cell therapies.
- Lack of sterility—in 2018, 12 people were hospitalized with serious infections resulting from unapproved stem cell treatments. The stem cells had not been properly sterilized during manufacture and bacterial contamination had occurred.
- Cancer—one of the greatest risks of stem cell therapy is cancer. Because stem cells can reproduce indefinitely, there is the risk of runaway growth or, in other words, a cancerous growth. Scientists continue to hammer away at this problem, but it remains unsolved.
- Limited oversight—much of the public has bought into the hype regarding stem cell therapy, which means there are many clinics willing to perform unapproved treatments that medical authorities do not oversee.
How Stem Cell Therapy Is Performed
Stem cell treatment generally involves the following steps:
- Harvesting cells—stem cells are collected from the patient, usually from fatty tissue or bone marrow. Along with the stem cells, growth factors like platelet rich plasma are also collected; this PRP factor helps activate the stem cells. Some clinics may harvest stem cells from other donors, in which case, it is necessary to purify and sterilize the collected cells.
- Implantation—once the cell solution is ready, it is injected into the affected area. To precisely inject the stem cells, many doctors use x-ray or ultrasound imagery to guide the needle.
- Follow up—in some cases, a follow up injection of platelet rich plasma is performed three to five days after the initial injection. This plasma helps keep the stem cells activated, prolonging the healing process.
Stem Cell Applications
Despite the enormous potential for stem cell therapy, very few actual treatments have earned approval from the Food and Drug Administration. These include
- Hematopoietic stem cell transplantation has been in use for more than 30 years. More commonly known as a bone marrow transplant, this procedure is used in cancer therapies.
- Skin or cornea transplants have FDA approval, but there are risks involved. In at least one case, a patient lost their sight following a corneal stem cell therapy.
Although the number of FDA-approved therapies is limited, there are many unapproved therapies that are common in the U.S.
- Joint reconditioning especially involving knees is a popular therapy that has been successful in hundreds of cases. Although unapproved, there are many American doctors who specialize in this treatment.
- Hair growth is another popular application. Specialists collect stem cells from hair follicles and implant them in the scalp.
There are several experimental applications with considerable promise.
- One study from Stanford University found that stem cell transplantation could be used to treat stroke effects. A 31-year old patient who suffered a stroke and was confined to a wheelchair regained use of her arms and legs after the treatment.
- A Japanese study involving three patients with diseased hearts were implanted with stem cells. Following the procedure, there was improvement in heart function. Follow up trials with more patients are planned soon.
Article written by: Dr. Robert Moghim – CEO/Founder Colorado Pain Care
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