What are stem cells?
There are numerous characteristics of stem cells that differentiate them from normal cells. These characteristics make them particularly useful in the medical sphere. Stem cells grow and multiply at a much faster rate than other types of cells. And, unlike other types of cells that can only replicate into the same type of cells, stem cells can replicate into many different types of cells. This is a very useful quality.
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How are stem cells used?
Given the qualities described above, stem cells have been used in many different medical treatments and applications. They’ve also had varying degrees of success. For example, stem cells have been used in skin grafts for patients who have severe burns. Embryonic stem cells are also at the heart of much of the research into degenerative neurological conditions, such as Parkinson’s Disease. In the last several years, cutting edge research has emerged suggesting that stem cells may be a useful tool in addressing cardiovascular disease. For instance, stem cells have been used to generate new blood vessels to replace ones that have become blocked.
Stem cells are a key cancer treatment tool.
Stem cell transplants are used to treat numerous types of cancer. However, they are most commonly used to treat blood cancers, such as lymphomas and leukemias. In a stem cell transplant, the patient undergoes chemotherapy and radiation to kill off their existing, diseased bone marrow. Depending on the type of cancer that the patient has, they may need more or less chemotherapy/radiation prior to the transplant.
Two Types of Stem Cell Transplants
There are two types of stem cell transplants that can be carried out: autologous or allogeneic transplants. In an autologous transplant, the patient receives his/her own stem cells that have been washed or cleaned. With an allogeneic transplant, a patient receives stem cells from another person. The person may or may not be related to them.
With an autologous transplant, ones blood cells are removed from the bone marrow or bone and frozen. This is done so that the chemotherapy or radiation treatment does not destroy them. Afterwards, the stem cells are thawed and given back to the patient.
Individuals who undergo an allogenic transplant receive blood cells from a close match, but this approach is risky. Cord blood is a newer form of allogeneic transplant, which is where blood is taken from the placenta and umbilical cord of a newborn. These cells tend to multiply quickly, but they don’t work well for large adults. The major advantage of allogeneic transplants is its ability to make its own immune cells. For instance, if a patient has cancer cells even after the chemotherapy or radiation, the immune cells may kill them.
Pros and Cons to Both Treatments
There are benefits and drawbacks associated with each approach. For example, in an allogeneic transplant, there is a higher risk that the transplant recipient will reject the transplant as a foreign body. This is known as graft-versus-host-disease. However, in recent years, there have been new drugs developed to reduce the risk of rejections. These drugs have demonstrated success. The autologous transplant is generally more safe, but graft failure is still possible. Graft failure occurs when the blood cells don’t go into the bone marrow as anticipated.
How effective are stem cell transplants?
The success of stem cell transplants vary based on numerous factors. For example, younger patients often have better responses to these transplants. Similarly, a person who is relatively healthier at the time of the transplant is likely to respond better to the transplant. Other health conditions may significantly complicate transplants, such as diabetes, heart disease, and other chronic diseases. Also, some types of cancers, even within the same family, simply have better results with stem cell transplants than do others. Success may also hinge on the ability to find a well-matched donor if the patient is receiving an allogeneic transplant. Often, there is less of a risk of a transplant being rejected if a related family member is used as the donor. However, this is not always feasible for a range of reasons. For example, someone may be an only child. And, finally, even though protocols for transplants are largely standardized in this country, as well as in most of the advanced industrialized world, success rates may also vary from hospital to hospital. Some doctors and hospitals are simply better at dealing with stem cell therapies and patients benefit from this expertise.
Acute Myeloid Leukemia
Autologous stem cell transplantation has shown to be beneficial for patients with myeloid leukemia. According to a study done by Linker (2003), the autologous approach has been much more effective than the allogeneic transplant. Patients receive the effectiveness of the transplant without the morbidity and mortality of graft-versus-host disease.
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There are possible risks and side effects of stem cell treatments.
Often when patients decide to undergo a stem cell treatment (generally, a bone marrow transplant), they are so sick that they simply do not have another option. From a medical perspective, it is often a last resort. However, patients and their loved ones need to understand that the treatment process is not easy. It often comes with serious risks and side effects. As noted above, one of the most significant risks associated with stem cell transplants is the risk of rejection. Other serious risks may include severe hemorrhaging that may result in the need for multiple transfusions, or systemic infections that may have deadly consequences. Prior to a transplant, a patient’s immune system is entirely wiped out by chemotherapy/radiation. This leaves the patient incredibly vulnerable to opportunistic infections. According to the American Cancer Society, other symptoms and side effects of stem cell transplants include:
Stem cell treatment is the way of the future.
Despite the very risks associated with stem cell treatments and therapies, the long-term consequences of pursuing this treatment course may be far less than those associated with high dose radiation or chemotherapy as standalone treatments. This, coupled with the fact that stem cell success rates are often higher than the rates for more ‘traditional’ therapies, means that increasingly oncologists are focusing on stem cell therapies as the go-to for cancer treatment. One would anticipate that as research continues in this area and medical technology continues to evolve and grow that we would see not only a continued improvement in success rates, but also these treatments being expanded to an ever increasing range of different cancers. Ideally, the medical community will also get better at addressing and mitigating the risks and side effects of stem cell therapies.