The body defends itself from infection with the immune system. A properly functioning immune system differentiates between cells from its own body and cells from invaders. Foreign cells should be targeted for destruction.
When a patient suffers from an autoimmune disorder, the body’s immune system attacks itself. Common autoimmune disorders include:
- Inflammatory bowel disease
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Systemic lupus erythematosus (lupus)
- Multiple sclerosis
How Does The Immune System Work?
The body is constantly at war with foreign bacteria and parasites. The body’s white blood cells, born in bone marrow, are like soldiers. If your body didn’t put up a fight, the harmful organisms could run rampant and destroy your health.
White blood cells detect and destroy invader cells. They have specialized tasks. Certain white blood cells, for instance, are particularly well suited for fighting bacterial infections. Others are capable of defending the body against viruses.
The body’s immune system works in tandem with the lymphatic system.
Quick Overview of Stem Cell Types
To date, there are multiple different types of stem cells. Most of the patients who receive stem cell transplants to treat their autoimmune disorder received adult stem cells harvested from their own bodies. However, there are other options.
1. Adult Stem Cells
Stems cells produced by developed adults. They eliminate the controversy attached to stem cell research because they don’t come from embryos. The cells can usually be extracted directly from the patient.
2. Embryonic Stem Cells
These stem cells come from embryos at the early stage of their development. They’re pluripotent, which means that they can differentiate into different types of cells.
3. Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells (iPSCs)
These are adult stem cells manipulated into having qualities of embryonic ones.
What Causes Autoimmune Diseases?
Autoimmune diseases can have debilitating or fatal effects. They arise when the body’s immune system becomes “confused” and begins attacking itself, triggering an inflammatory response.
The causes are unknown. Certain autoimmune diseases tend to cluster in families while others show no genetic link. Scientists have identified at least 80 autoimmune disorders.
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Stem Cell Therapy to Treat Autoimmune Diseases
The standard treatment for most immune disorders involves the use of immunomodulatory and immunosuppressive drugs. These drugs can have serious side effects and aren’t effective in all patients. Researchers believe that stem cell therapies could potentially be useful.
Autoimmune diseases share similarities but they tend to affect different organs. Lupus can affect many organs in the body, with the kidneys often showing signs of injury. Type 1 diabetes, meanwhile, affects the pancreas. Stem cells could theoretically be used to replace the damaged pancreatic or kidney tissues.
A clinical trial looked at the effect of stem cell therapy on patients with severe, medication-resistant lupus. The researchers’ goal was to replace the patients’ highly reactive immune system with a fresh, properly working one.
Patients first received growth factor injections, increasing their supply of hematopoietic or blood stem cells. The extra cells are collected and stored. Next, the patient’s immune system is purposefully destroyed through drugs and radiation.
The stem cells are then reintroduced into the patient’s bloodstream. They travel to the bone marrow and begin to transform into functioning, mature immune cells.
Lupus patients who underwent the procedure were still in remission one to three years later.
The study was experimental. However, the results suggest that stem cells could be useful in treating autoimmune diseases.
Gene therapy aims to manipulate malfunctioning genes. DNA is either injected directly into the patient or into cultured cells. The fresh DNA is intended to overwrite the mistake. The cells should follow the instructions encoded by the new gene.
Stem cell gene therapy is still being developed. Gene therapy using stem cells is a more effective treatment strategy than a direct injection into the body. The method allows the medical team to have more control over the process. Researchers can manipulate the cells into producing an abnormal amount of the desired protein.
A significant portion of the gene therapy trials in the U.S. have relied on adult stem cells. They’re particularly useful because they’re a perpetual, self-renewing source of cells. The cells are easy to identify and to remove from the body. They’re easily returned to the bloodstream as well.
Stem cell research is still fairly new. There are only a few therapies that have regulatory approval for use on human patients. All stem cell therapies targeting patients with autoimmune diseases, therefore, are experimental.
This doesn’t mean that the FDA has declared that the treatments are ineffective. Rather, the organization hasn’t come to a decision.
Are There Any Challenges?
Adult stem cells harvested from fully developed tissues can only be transformed into the type of tissue from which they originated. Liver cells will progress into liver cells, heart cells will turn into heart cells, and so on. That’s why the development of iPSCs was so monumental. It allowed researchers to have access to adult stem cells with the flexibility of embryonic ones.
Access to adult stem cells is relatively unrestricted. Lack of federal oversight has led to the creation of stem cell clinics broadcasting unsupported claims. Charlatans are charging high prices for sham procedures.
“Stem cell clinics that mislead vulnerable patients into believing they are being given safe, effective treatments that are in full compliance with the law are dangerously exploiting consumers and putting their health at risk,” Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said in 2017.
“As the FDA takes new steps to advance an efficient, modern approach to the regulation of cell based regenerative medicine, at the same time we will be stepping up our enforcement actions against clinics that abuse the trust of patients and, more important, endanger their health with unsanitary conditions or by purporting to have treatments which may not provide any benefit.”
Stem cell research is promising but it’s still in its infancy.
How to Protect Yourself
Stem cell therapy might be able to help patients suffering from autoimmune disorders. However, the theory hasn’t been proven. Before signing up for stem cell therapy or participating in a clinical trial, take reasonable precautions.
Ask questions. A legitimate organization won’t be afraid of your curiosity. The staff should be able to tell you where the stem cells are coming from and how they’re going to help you treat your autoimmune condition. Ask about previous studies on people with your condition. Did stem cell therapy improve their condition?
Be informed. Read every document very carefully before signing it. Only participate in clinical trials that have been vetted by the FDA.
Be wary of too much hype. Even the most encouraging stem cell therapy for autoimmune patients is still experimental. An experienced, trustworthy doctor won’t tout benefits that haven’t been reliably demonstrated to be true.
Many people with autoimmune disorders struggle to find relief from their disease. Current treatment methods are often inadequate. Stem cell therapy could potentially be extremely beneficial.
However, the treatments are still in the testing phase. That means that they haven’t been proven to work yet. If you’re thinking about stem cell treatments, you should know that nothing is guaranteed.