Stem Cell Treatments: Is it the Miracle Cure?
On October of 2012, news reports buzzed about the first ever HIV patient who had been allegedly cured by stem cell therapy. Timothy Brown, an American who was infected with HIV in 1995, received stem cells from a donor who was genetically resistant to the acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) virus. Brown’s case proved to be a breakthrough in the search for a cure against HIV and AIDS. It also confirmed the future of stem cell treatments amidst the budding controversies surrounding it.:
About Stem Cells
Stem cells are a class of undifferentiated cells – cells that have not yet matured and acquired a particular structure of function yet. These cells have the potential to differentiate or divide and develop into other cell types, thus producing more cells in the body.
Much value is given to stem cells because of its natural capability to produce new cells and repair tissue for the treatment of various diseases.
The knowledge of the potentials of stem cells began when two Canadian scientists, Ernest McCulloch and James Till, injected bone marrow cells into mice in 1963. They observed nodules growing from the injected area and suspected that the single bone marrow cell had caused the reaction. Further experimentation confirmed that these cells were, in fact, stem cells.
All multicellular organisms carry stem cells. Although there are many types of stem cells, the two general kinds are embryonic and adult stem cells.
Just as the name purports, embryonic stem cells come from the early stages of an embryo. These cells have the potential to cultivate into at least 200 cell types of the adult body. Because of its intricate and complex nature, embryonic stem cells are likely to reject transplantation and cause severe immune system reactions more than adult stem cells.
Adult stem cells have the natural ability to maintain and repair the tissue in which they are found. These cells are also known as somatic cells (from the Greek word soma meaning body) because they can be found virtually in all body tissues, organs, blood, umbilical cords, placenta, and even from post mortem human brains (for neural stem cells) 20 hours following death. Children carry adult stem cells too
About Stem Cell Treatments
Through decades of study, scientists and doctors managed to find revolutionary ways to incorporate stem cells into medical treatments. Albeit many of them exist, regulatory boards have approved only a few for passing medical and ethical standards. Most are still under research and experimentation.
In stem cell therapy, new adult stem cells are introduced to the body. This is possible through a process called transplantation. This is seen as a kind of intervention technique because the new cells replenish the dying cells and regenerate damaged tissue. The stem cells may come from the patient himself, from another donor of the same specie, or from a different specie altogether (i.e. animals).
One of the most popular and widely accepted stem cell treatments is bone marrow transplant therapy. The bone marrow has an abundant reserve of stem cells that may help treat cancer conditions. However, this does not mean it will cure the disease. It will only help the body recover from the high-dose chemotherapy used to treat the cancer.
The basic procedure for transplantation is as follows:
- Evaluation. The first step is a thorough evaluation of the patient’s fitness to undergo the treatment. The patient will have to go through a series of examinations beforehand. This is to check his health and for any possible infections. If the stem cells to be used are from the patient, the examination will also check if those cells are healthy and usable for the transplant. If the cells are from another donor, hospitals will have to conduct a DNA matching system to evaluate the compatibility. This is crucial because if incompatible, the recipient’s body will reject the donated cells. If the tests determine that the patient is eligible for the treatment, he is given medication in preparation for the stem cell harvest.
- Mobilization of stem cells. The source of the stem cells (i.e. bone marrow) must produce a number of stem cells before they can be collected. Patients are therefore given drugs called growth factors to increase stem cell production and release.
- Harvesting of stem cells. In cell harvesting, patients are anaesthetized and are collected through the Patient’s bone marrow or vein using an aphaeresis catheter, a small silicone tube. The cells are then taken into a laboratory to be counted, examined and cultured.
- Storing of stem cells. The cells are preserved in a liquid nitrogen freezer until it is time for the transplantation.
- Transplantation. When the body has recovered from the medication and the cells are ready, the cells are transfused or injected back to the patient’s body.
- Recovery and follow-up. Patients recover with a few side effects including fever, nausea, and soreness. Improvements from the treatment are usually visible within two weeks to a month.
To treat cosmetic or aesthetic concerns, stem cells undergo a similar process to a bone marrow transplant. The difference is that their procedures may be accomplished within 3 to 4 hours long only.