What You Should Know About Stem Cells

Stem cells appear quite frequently among trending topics in today’s medical news due to their aptitude for facilitating regeneration. While much is known about these fascinating cells, researchers are constantly finding new ways to integrate stem cell therapy into treatment regimens for a variety of conditions. This quick guide is here to provide you with a general glimpse at some of the ways stem cells are currently influencing medicine.

What Are Stem Cells?

Stem cells are unique in the fact that they start off as undifferentiated biological cells that are unspecialized towards one task, but are then able to develop into specialized types of cells as needed; rather than being formed for one specific task or function. Once differentiated into specialized cells they continue to divide and reproduce through a process called mitosis.

There are two types of stem cells: embryonic and adult stem cells. The embryonic cells are found in the organism’s blastocyst, a structure of cells that appears early in the development of mammals and can be derived from human embryos that are four to five days old. The outer layer of the blastocyst mass, known as trophoblast, develops into the placenta, while the inner mass of cells is comprised of cells that will eventually develop into the various organs and tissues of the body. These cells are embryonic stem cells and can grow rapidly and differentiate into many tissue/cell types (pluripotential).

Adult stem cells exist in the tissue in the body.  The primary role of adult stem cells is to maintain and repair the tissue where they reside. These stem cells can be differentiated into specialized cell types within the tissue or organ they are supporting (multipotential). Though they are commonly known as “adult” stem cells, they can most accurately be described as “somatic” (from the Greek word soma, which means body) since they are found in any of the body’s tissues.

When Were Stem Cells First Discovered And Utilized?

Adult stem cells were first discovered in the 1950s as being present in bone marrow.  There are two populations of stem cells that exist in the bone marrow: hematopoietic stem cells (HSCs) and mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs).  HSCs have the ability to form all types of blood cells while MSCs have the ability to form tissues such as bone, cartilage or fat.  Since that time, MSCs have been used in thousands of animal studies demonstrating safety and efficacy.  Hundreds of clinical trials have been completed for a variety of indications.

In 1981, two scientists, Martin Evans of the University of Cambridge and Gail Martin of the University of California, San Francisco, separately successfully derived stem cells from mouse embryos for research and development. Shortly thereafter, in 1998 a team from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, led by James Thomson and Jeffrey Jones derived stem cells from human embryos and were successfully able to grow the cells in the laboratory for research purposes.

Today, the use of adipose (fat) derived stem cells to combat a wide variety of medical conditions such as joint issues like knee and hip pain, as well as systemic diseases like autoimmune disorders and diabetes, has been employed successfully at many specialized clinics throughout the world . One of today’s pioneers in the research and development of stem cell use for the regeneration of tissues is Kristin Comella,PhD candidate. She led the team that gained the first ever FDA approval for a clinical trial using a combined cell and gene therapy product that brought the technology out of research facilities and put it in the hands of practicing physicians in the United States.  Ms. Comella has developed a wide range of regenerative techniques that are now implemented at specialized clinics to bring the benefits of healing with stem cells to thousands of American patients who previously did not have access to this technology

Where Do Adult Stem Cells Come From?

Stem cell therapy is considered to be a “natural solution,” since the cells are naturally occurring in all living mammals. Adult stem cells are most easily derived from the following places within the human body using the subsequent methods:

Bone marrow – by harvesting, a process that removes stem cells within the bone marrow via a needle puncture directly into a bone

Adipose tissue – by using mini-lipoaspirate procedures

Blood – by apheresis, where blood is taken from a donor and is processed to extract the stem cells and returns the unused blood back to the donor

Umbilical cords – cells can be derived from the blood of the umbilical cord after a child is born

How Are Stem Cells Used In Medicine?

For years, procedures such as bone marrow transplants and chemotherapy treatments have been utilizing the power of stem cells. The patient or donor’s healthy bone marrow provides functioning stem cells that can repair the area of the body that was damaged by the chemotherapy treatment. While chemotherapy is effective, it is also a highly invasive procedure that causes the body to undergo a variety of side effects. Stem cell therapy can help reduce these effects by bolstering the immune system and helping to fight off the cancerous cells, while also supporting the body’s regeneration as necessary. It is even possible that a stem cell treatment might help lower the risk of relapse in patients with a history of cancer.

What Is Stem Cell Injection?

Stem cell injection is a process by which healthy stem cells are extracted from a donor or the patient and are then injected into the area of the patient’s body that requires repair. A stem cell transplant requires that the embryonic stem cells first be specialized into the needed adult cell type. Then, the mature cells are injected to replace the damaged tissue. Once the cells are injected, they will begin to replicate and replace the damaged cells in an effort to remedy the issue that is being treated.

What Is The Difference Between A stem Cell Injection And Transplant?

A stem cell injection is just the act of injecting the cells – either the patient’s own cells or a donor. While a stem cell transplant pertains only to the use of a donor’s stem cells within a patient’s treatment, thus the activity of transplanting from one to another.

How Are Stem Cells Used To Treat Disease?

Due to their ability to differentiate, stem cells are often used as replacement cells for a variety of injuries and conditions that cause lasting damage and injury to the body. For example, neurological conditions such as: spinal cord injuries, stroke, Parkinson’s, and Alzheimer’s diseases can be treated by using stem cells to replace damaged neurons. Burns and other skin conditions have the potential to be treated through stem cell therapies as well, with the stem cells being utilized to create healthy tissue for skin grafts and other similar reconstructive procedures. These graphs are especially helpful in treating chronic (meaning: long lasting) injuries in older patients that lack the natural vitality to heal themselves in a sufficient manor, and are therefore left open to infection.

While research studies are constantly providing new information and procedures are improving, the use of stem cells is still a relatively new practice and the results and side effects (both short and long term) have not been confirmed in large double blind placebo controlled trials.  Therefore, these therapies are still considered experimental.

Which Diseases Can Be Treated And/or Cured?

While stem cell therapy cannot yet be considered a cure for any disease, its great effectiveness gives hope for a cure to many serious diseases such as COPD, Diabetes, Arthritis, Osteoarthritis, multiple sclerosis (MS), Lou Gehrig’s Disease (ALS), and HIV/AIDS in the future. These are the current treatment options utilizing stem cell therapies:

Anemias and Other Blood Conditions – stem cells may be able to treat blood disorders by providing the body with the means to regenerate healthy blood cells.  This could be crucial in treating diseases such as Fanconi anaemia, Sickle Cell Anemia, and Thalassemia.

Cancer – stem cell therapy can be used to permeate healthy stem cells into the body to suppress the disease, while simultaneously stimulating new marrow development, and reduce relapse rates. This therapy could be beneficial in the treatment of diseases such as Ovarian Cancer, Breast Cancer, and Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.

Wounds and Injuries – stem cells have the ability to treat both acute and chronic wounds, including injuries in older patients that lack the ability to quickly and naturally heal. These methods could help heal surface wound healing, limb gangrene, and even jawbone replacement by increasing blood vessels and improving blood supply.

Which Treatments Are In Use Or Being Researched?

As with new options, the medical field is studying a multitude of possible uses for stem cells within treatment plans for an array of diseases, and there is hope that in the future stem cell therapies could become the standard care. Here are a few of the different ways stem cells are utilized to help patient’s recover:

Auto-immune Diseases – stem cells from adipose tissue have shown immunomodulatory and anti-inflammatory properties. It is possible that these cells could repair and regenerate damaged tissues injured by disease. This could help with diseases such as Buerger’s Disease, Systemic Lupus, and Rheumatoid Arthritis.

Neurodegeneration – research into the effects of stem cell therapy on brain conditions such as Parkinson’s and MS are being conducted.

Brain and spinal cord injuries – since brain and spinal cord injuries usually involve the deadening of cells; research is being conducted to see the effects of introducing healthy stem cells to the injured regions of the body. The cells may reduce inflammation and promote healthy new tissue formation

Heart conditions – stem cells are being used to regenerate heart muscle tissue along with new blood vessels; research has shown that stem cell therapy can also reverse the tissue loss that eventually develops into heart conditions like congestive heart failure.

Tooth and hair replacement – researchers have discovered a way to grow stand-alone teeth and have developed a way to re-grow hair.  Stem cells can be injected into the scalp to improve thinning hair.  The cells may help to increase vascular supply which may improve the health of the hair follicle.

Vision loss – the successful transfer of stem cells to improve vision has been occurring since the early 2000s with retinal cells harvested from aborted fetuses.  Stem cells may also be injected directly into the eye and are currently being studied in clinical trial for diseases such as macular degeneration.

Pancreatic cells – stem cells are being used to produce healthy beta cells in the pancreas.  Diabetes patients would benefit from this therapy, as it may decrease their dependence on daily insulin treatments.

Orthopedics – stem cells are being used in a variety of musculoskeletal conditions including acute tendon/ligament injuries and arthritis.  Studies have shown that such therapies have increased meniscus volume in the knees of human subjects.

HIV/AIDS – researchers are working towards alternative HIV/AIDS treatments by introducing healthy stem cells to create and support a disease-resistant immune system.

How Much Does Stem Cell Therapy Cost?

The cost of stem cell therapy varies upon the condition or conditions the therapy is being used to treat as well as the duration of the treatment – as some conditions may require multiple procedures. Some therapies can cost as little as $1,000 to $2,000, while others can cost up to $10,000. For the most accurate price, consult with your doctor and insurance company.

Will Insurance Cover The Expense?

The cost of stem cell therapy varies upon the condition or conditions the therapy is being used to treat as well as the duration of the treatment – as some conditions may require multiple procedures. Some therapies can cost as little as $1,000 to $2,000, while others can cost up to $10,000. For the most accurate price, consult with your doctor and insurance company.

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