Is it possible and wise to get stem cell transplants for cancer? Or should someone only consider current medical treatment – chemotherapy, radiation and surgery?
The information in this article may surprise you with its answer since government officials at the National Institutes of Health are reporting positive findings for those with cancer in regards to stem cell treatments. In fact, at this time the government is more positive about stem cell treatments for cancer rather than stem cell treatments for other conditions.
Why Would Cancer Patients Need Stem Cell Treatments?
Those who have cancer are in a precipitous position. Their cancer may have grown to the point where they needed chemotherapy or radiation therapy. This may have helped but it destroys the stem cells that form the new blood cells.
Many cancer patients have big problems after their cancer treatment where their red blood cell numbers or their white blood cell numbers or even their platelets fall to dangerous levels. It’s because these stem cells that form the new blood cells have been destroyed by the treatment.
When white blood cell numbers plummet, then it’s easy to succumb to different types of infection. The body can’t fight against infections at all.
When red blood cell numbers fall, anemia results. This may seem trivial, but in actuality, you can die from anemia. You can have a stroke or heart attack from anemia when the red blood cell numbers are exceptionally low.
When platelet counts are low, then there can be spontaneous bleeding that occurs internally. The purpose of the platelets is to clot the blood.
How Stem Cell Treatments for Cancer Work
When you get a stem cell treatment for cancer, the stem cells work to replace the cells destroyed by your cancer treatment. But in certain types of cancer – lymphoma, leukemia, multiple myeloma and neuroblastoma (brain tumor), the stem cells launch a direct attack against the cancer. This direct attack occurs because someone else that donated the stem cells have white blood cells that go right after the cancer cells. If the stem cells were your own, this may or may not happen.
It’s possible that if you get a donor outside yourself to supply the blood-forming stem cells, the new cells attack your own cells. If this occurs, your internal organs or your skin can be damaged either right away or in time. When this happens, steroids or other immune-suppressive drugs are used to remedy the situation. Doctors can prevent this potential reaction by matching a donor’s stem cells to yours.
3 Main Types of Stem Cell Treatments (Transplants)
Stem cell transplants fall into one of three categories:
1. Allogeneic – these are the stem cells that are not from your own body but they are from relative or non-relative donors. Treatment success for this type of stem cell treatment is not determined for up to two years.
2. Autologous – these are stem cells that come from your own body, such as from your bone marrow or your own fat cells. Treatment success for this type of stem cell treatment is not determined for several months.
3. Syngeneic – these stem cells are the rarest, as they are only from your identical twin. If you don’t have an identical twin, then you can never get this type of stem cell transplant. Treatment success for this type of stem cell treatment is not determined for up to two years.
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In a 2014 medical journal report, scientists discussed the different types of stem cells that were used in treatments for cancer. In this case, they discussed the difference between adult stem cells, embryonic stem cells and induced pluripotent stem cells.
The induced pluripotent stem cells are ones that are genetically manipulated to create a specific type of stem cell that is desired for the situation. These are from adult stem cells – but note that it’s a ‘tampered with’ type of adult stem cell.
Is There Any Danger in Using Stem Cells in Cancer?
They noted that adult stem cells (from the bone marrow, mesenchymal stem cells neural stem cells and endothelial stem cells) are safer than embryonic stem cells and the pluripotent stem cells. There has been some concern in the past about stem cells creating tumors when injected into the body. In animal studies, tumors called teratomas formed in some cases.
The formation of a tumor depends on a lot of different factors. Some of them include:
1. The amount of oxygen in the environment of the tumor (the lower the level of oxygen, the greater the chance of tumor formation).
2. The amount of blood vessels feeding the tumor
3. The presence of inflammation in the area of the tumor
You should know that it’s the stem cells that are genetically engineered that are the ones that can potentially cause tumors, not your body’s own stem cells or embryonic ones. Unmodified stem cells have natural anti-tumor effects in the body.
Science has now advanced to the point where researchers believe that by adding suicide genes into stem cells will take care of the stem cells that go awry. Many more studies have yet to be carried out on this topic.
The Details About Stem Cell Treatments for Cancer
When you have cancer, you can’t just go anywhere for a stem cell treatment. The stem cells are given via a catheter over a period of time up to about 5 hours.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Cancer Institute control these treatment protocols and doctors that are doing them have to apply for special permission from these institutions. The purpose of this is to make sure that cancer patients are not taken advantage of and that the protocols used have true scientific merit.
One place to go to find out how to become a part of the stem cell treatments that are ready for testing in cancer patients is here.
On this web page, you enter your zip code and age and cancer type and the interface finds trials for you. Stem cell treatments for cancer are performed at specialized transplant centers or hospitals. You can find a location at the Be the Match web page.
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The Nitty Gritty About Stem Cell Treatments for Cancer
Some additional facts about stem cell treatments for cancer include the following:
1. Just because you participate in a study for cancer, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the treatments are free. Always check with your insurance company to see whether or not they will pay for a portion of it, and how much they will cover.
2. Getting stem cell treatments for cancer may require you to travel to one of the treatment centers that are far from your home. Consider this when you are calculating how much you will need for treatments.
3. Financial help may be available if you call 1-800-4-CANCER and inquire about types of help that has already been set up by various humanitarian groups.
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