Here at MEDIGO, we believe informed patients are better prepared to make important decisions about their health. This is why we are giving you an overview of stem cell-based therapies that are gaining increasing interest among patients and healthcare professionals across the world.
Stem cell-based therapies hold much promise to alleviate or even cure many unsolved health issues, but patients should be aware that many treatments are not yet clinically approved and they are encouraged to consult with their primary care physician before undergoing a stem cell therapy.
What are stem cells?
Stem cells are undifferentiated cells present in every person, from newborns to the elderly. These cells help us to regenerate and replace old or damaged cells and, unlike differentiated cells (such as cartilage or muscle cells), they are able to develop into a wide variety of cell types. Stem cells can also generate new stem cells in order to sustain a healthy supply for the body.
Thanks to these regenerative properties, scientists have turned to stem cell research to seek cures both for diseases and conditions that have no existing treatments and for those that are treated with medicines that offer only temporary relief and/or cause unwanted side effects. The potential of stem cells is especially high for conditions caused by degenerated or damaged cells, including brain, bone, and cartilage cells, as well as many other cell types necessary for our bodies to function normally.
For example, neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease pose a growing concern in our aging society, yet there is so far no effective treatment for these conditions. Clinical experts across the world agree that stem cell-based therapies could offer solutions for these and a multitude of other health concerns.
How do stem cells work?
Stem cells in humans act in a similar way as certain tree bark cells when a new branch starts to grow: these initially “faceless” cells divide and differentiate into many layers of bark as well as leaves, and finally even blossoms. Human stem cells can have differing capabilities to specialize (to become a new, functional cell).
While some stem cells are powerful enough to develop into any type of cell in our body, others can only become, for example, a blood cell or a muscle cell. This potential to differentiate is known as stem cell potency.
|Stem cell potency to regenerate||Functional role|
|Totipotent (sourced from a human embryo and can develop into any cell type in the human body)||Can give rise to a new human being|
|Pluripotent (can develop into any cell type in the human body except for cells in placenta)||Can give rise to all of our organs and tissues (important in early human development)|
|Multipotent or oligopotent (can develop into different cell types depending on the specific stem cell)||Can give rise to specific functional and structural tissues (e.g., contribute to bone growth, blood supply, or muscle buildup)|
Which stem cells are therapeutically useful?
All adults have multipotent stem cells, which can be found in our bone marrow. These cells help to regenerate our blood supplies and surrounding bone structure. Bone marrow has been a valuable source of stem cells for critically ill patients now for years. This is also why leukemia sufferers receive “bone marrow transplants” – they need to replace the inflicted, cancerous blood cells with new, healthy ones.
Aside from blood-generating stem cells, there are many other types of multipotent stem cells found in abundance across the human body. Mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs) play a vital role in the regeneration of our bones, muscles, cartilage, and other body structures. Depending on the organ or tissue where MSCs are located, they can develop into specific functional cells and in this way repair damages, for instance, in our knees or heart.
This multipotency makes MSCs a very promising therapeutic cell source: they could help speed up and support the regeneration of various organs and body parts to overcome complicated health issues.
Other stem cells that could help include embryonic stem cells, which are the most powerful among all stem cells to be found in the body. However, their use is restricted due to ethical concerns (to obtain embryonic stem cells, the embryo must be dismantled). They are also difficult to access, and the same problem is associated with pluripotent stem cells. Nonetheless, scientists have now found that easily accessible adult stem cells can be modified to express some properties of pluripotent stem cells.
These cells are called induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs), which can be derived from regular skin cells and other sources. Thanks to this, iPSCs avoid the ethical and supply concerns related to embryonic stem cells. Still, additional research is needed before iPSCs can be regularly used in the clinic to ensure patient safety.
Why fat-derived stem cells could be the next big thing
MSCs can be extracted from bone marrow, but the procedure itself is painful and the number of MSCs extracted is often quite low. Fortunately, it is now known that fat tissue is a rich source of MSCs, making the stem cell extraction procedure more convenient, less painful, and more affordable compared to extraction from bone marrow. Also, this method means the cells can be easily isolated from a patient’s own body (rather than a donor´s), reducing the risk of transplant rejection.
Donor cells may not match with a patient’s individual immune factors, which is a key factor for successful treatment. Conversely, a patient’s own cells carry the same markers as the rest of their body, helping the body to accept and incorporate the inserted stem cells.
Stem cell-based treatment options and considerations
Thanks to these advantages of fat-derived MSCs, there are now hundreds of research programs and clinical trials around the world investigating the potential benefits of MSC-based treatments. Although medical interest in stem cell-based therapies is growing, patients must be aware that, as of today, the stem cell treatment field is still largely experimental, and only select treatment options offer substantial evidence that supports their safety and effectiveness.
Since there are so many research programs running simultaneously, it is always advisable to clarify the established treatment benefits and trustworthiness of the clinic before booking a stem cell procedure. However, many procedures that could alleviate the patient’s situation already exist. Here are some examples:
- Osteoarthritis is one of the conditions where confidence in stem cell-based treatment safety has been systematically established. Osteoarthritis is a common chronic degenerative joint disease (known as “wear and tear” arthritis). Conventionally, there is no cure, and it is handled only through symptom management. This makes it a great candidate for widespread stem cell-based treatment, especially since good evidence of efficacy already exists for certain types of osteoarthritis (e.g. hip conditions). And for many others, the treatment demonstrates high potential to relieve pain and to improve physical function.
- Recent news also brings hope for scleroderma patients. Although management of this condition has been refined over the past 40 years, scleroderma-associated mortality has not changed during this time. Systemic scleroderma has continued to damage patients’ skin and connective tissues, negatively impacting all organs. Now, however, there is clear clinical evidence that stem cell transplants can achieve long-term benefits for scleroderma patients.
- Stroke, a leading cause for death and physical disability among adults, is another widespread medical need where stem cells are opening new possibilities. Regeneration of damaged brain cells has been an insurmountable problem for a long time, but stem cell science is changing this thinking. Various models demonstrate the beneficial effect of MSCs in neural regeneration, and patient studies have proven the safety of stem cell transplants and shown clinical improvement in patients.
If you are interested in knowing more about stem cell-based treatment options, discover our partner clinics and their services.