Stem cell treatments aren’t exactly new — these infinitely changeable cells have been used since the late 1980s, though they weren’t prominently advertised until the mid-2000s once the U.S. Government began the National Cord Blood Bank. Until then, many people didn’t even know that they could bank their infant’s umbilical cord blood for use later in life to treat debilitating diseases if they should occur.
Many people still aren’t familiar with stem cells in general, so we’ve decided to shed a little light on the subject for you. What are stem cells and what can these cells be used to treat?
What are Stem Cells?
Stem cells are cells in the early stage of development that still retain some transformational plasticity. Once reintroduced into the body, they can transform into a variety of different healthy cells to help treat different diseases and conditions. Stem cell harvests happen in one of three ways:
- ‘Adult’ stem cells — these are harvested from bone marrow.
- Embryonic stem cells — these are harvested from embryos in the blastocyst stage, three to five days after fertilization.
- Cord blood stem cells — these are harvested from the umbilical cord of a newborn immediately after birth.
Embryonic stem cells are only used for research purposes, while adult and cord blood cells can be useful in treating diseases. The most significant difference between the two is in the transplant specifics and the amount of time they can spend in storage.
Adult stem cell transplants cannot be stored for more than a few hours and are only suitable for transplants to a recipient who is a close genetic match to the donor. Cord blood, on the other hand, can be stored almost indefinitely and doesn’t require as specific a genetic match for the transplant to be successful.
Stem Cell Treatment Options
What sort of conditions can these stem cells help treat?
- Cancers — cord blood transplants have been approved by the FDA for use in the treatment of a variety of cancers, including leukemia, lymphoma, bone marrow cancer and other solid tumors.
- Blood disorders — these transplants can be used to treat red cell abnormalities and problems with blood cell proliferation.
- Genetic disorders — some inherited genetic conditions, including those that affect the immune, can often be treated with cord blood transplants.
These stem cell capabilities have already changed lives in the most amazing ways — one small study followed a group of children who had been diagnosed with adrenoleukodystrophy (ALD), a genetic disorder that causes nerve cells to deteriorate and die. The prognosis for this condition is dire — most children with this disease die within five years of their diagnosis.
Recently, researchers treated a group of 17 boys — since the condition is limited almost exclusively to male patients — between the ages of four and 13. Of the 17, 15 of them are living happy, healthy lives with no recurrence of symptoms thanks to a cord blood-based gene therapy. Only one of the study participants died of the condition because his symptoms progressed too quickly for the gene therapy. The 17th participant withdrew from the study in favor of a bone marrow transplant.
Genetic disorders aren’t the only application for these stem cells — their transformational plasticity makes them an invaluable tool for patients of all age groups. They may be used in the future to help increase muscle strength in elderly patients.
Loss of muscle mass is a typical side effect of aging, but it can make it more difficult for older patients to continue living healthy and active lives. So far, this form of gene therapy has only mice to prove its practice, but the results were stunning — the elderly mice became stronger, their treated muscle tissue comparable to the tissue found in young mice.
Stem cells could even be used to help regenerate neurological function in elderly patients. A recent study found that treating elderly mice with umbilical cord blood helps them improve their cognitive function, making it easier to learn and remember things. If this can translate to a human treatment, it could be one of the most exciting new treatments for Alzheimer’s and dementia in recent memory.
This kind of tissue regeneration isn’t even limited to mice and humans. Researchers in Moscow found that they could cure lameness in horses by injecting DNA into the injured tissues. This method could give new life to horses to might otherwise be put down because of their injuries — but it could also lead to further treatment for similar tendon and soft tissue injuries in humans. If you’ve ever sprained your knee or twisted your ankle, you might be able to benefit from this kind of stem cell-adjacent treatment.
Banking on the Future
There are so many new advances in stem cell and cord blood treatment that it’s almost hard to keep track of them all. These discoveries are changing the way we look at regenerative medicine, and in time, they could even change the way we treat everything from cancer to the common cold.
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