Successfully Regenerating Blood Cells
Radiation and chemotherapy have made a dramatic positive difference in the outcomes for people impacted by a wide range of cancers. However, these treatments, which do not differentiate between “bad” (cancer) cells and “good” (healthy) cells, have a wide range of potential side effects. Some of these side effects include extreme fatigue and nausea. Another side effect is that these treatments can kill off healthy blood cells, precipitously dropping a patient’s red and white blood cells. These cells play a critical role in fighting infections, as well a wide range of other important body functions. Traditionally, these drops in blood counts have been addressed with transfusions. But, stem cell therapy may offer a better alternative for regenerating blood cells.
Blood Transfusions: Risks and Benefits
In past decades, when a patient’s red blood cell (hemoglobin) level dropped to dangerous levels, patients received transfusions of other people’s blood to prop up their blood counts. However, transfusions carry certain risks. Even with state-of-the-art screening, people may be exposed to infectious diseases, such as HIV/AIDS or hepatitis. These risks are very low. A more serious risk is that even with correctly typed and cross-matched blood, a patient can develop a serious allergic reaction to the transfused product, treating it as a foreign body.
Because of these risks, medical professionals have looked for alternatives to transfusions. One earlier answer was transfusing with artificial plasma and other materials. However, this still had associated risks. Recognizing this and the potential of stem cell therapy, scientists and doctors began to explore how stem cell therapy could be used to help regenerate blood cells.
Transfusions generally only address low red blood cell counts or platelet levels. But, patients dealing with the effects of cancer treatment have both low white and red blood counts. And, this is where stem cell treatment comes in handy. Stem cells can differentiate and produce both red and white blood cells. This is a definite benefit.
The body needs a tremendous amount of red blood cells; and these cells have short lifespans. This means that the body has to regularly produce these cells. Studies suggest that the body needs to produce 2,000,000 red blood cells every second to remain at healthy, functional levels. In a healthy person, this production will happen in the bone marrow. However, for a person with cancer undergoing radiation treatment or chemotherapy, the person will not be able to produce this number of cells.
Stem Cell Therapy and Blood Regeneration
And, this is where stem cell therapy comes into play.
Although people often reference stem cell therapy as a generic catch-all term, it is important to remember that there are many different types of stem cells and various approaches to stem cell therapy.
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One important type of stem cells is mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs). These stem cells secrete growth factors that help spur the further production of blood cells. The specialized growth factor then helps encourage hematopoietic stem and progenitor cells (HSPCs) to form a wide variety of different types of blood cells, such as platelets, red blood cells, and white blood cells. These MSCs, according to researchers, act as fertilizers in the human body encouraging other important blood cells to grow at a faster rate. Professor Krystyn Van Vliet of MIT (which is one of the world leaders in pushing the envelope of what is and is not possible with stem cell technology) said, “The MSCs are coming in and improving the soil so that the progenitor cells can start proliferating and differentiating into the blood cell lineages that you need to survive.”
Mechanopriming and Other Technological Innovations
Although this technology sounds straightforward on the surface, it is extremely complex; and, it has required countless technological breakthroughs. One of the most important innovations has been mechanopriming. Mechanopriming is a process through which materials are designed and produced that more accurately mirror actual bone marrow tissue. Researchers believe that cells will reproduce more effectively on this mechanoprimed material. Not only will the cells reproduce more quickly, it will also help these cells more successfully differentiate into the various types of blood cells. MSCs secrete more growth factors on these materials than on any other materials.
This is still a relatively new process, though, and further research needs to be carried out. It is still in early stages of research and development. However, these early results have been extremely promising. MSCs were implanted in mice who had been treated with radiation therapy (similar to the radiation therapy that cancer patients regularly receive). These implanted MSCs quickly divided and then reproduced into a variety of different blood cells. And, perhaps not surprisingly, given this rapid replication, the mice who were treated with this innovation saw a rapid improvement in their symptoms, including less fatigue and other troubling symptoms, such as nausea.
And Other Wider Implications
It is clear that mechanopriming and the use of MSCs are applicable to treating patients with cancer. But, scientists also believe that it may be applicable to other medical problems as well. Viola Vogel, the Chair of Health Science Technology at ETH Zurich, stated, “Illustrating how mechanopriming of mesenchymal stem cells can be exploited to improve on hematopoietic recovery is of huge medical significance. It also sheds light on how to utilize their approach to perhaps take advantage of other cell subpopulations for therapeutic applications in the future.”
This process could potentially be extended to the treatment of Parkinson’s Disease, rheumatoid arthritis, and a wide range of other autoimmune conditions, and there may be even more applications as research moves forward.
Again, it may not be immediately clear what diseases will respond best to mechanopriming and MSC treatment until further animal and human trials are conducted, and human trials may still be years away (in order to ensure that human safety is always foremost).
Treatment advances, such as chemotherapy and radiation treatment, have dramatically improved life expectancy for patients diagnosed with a wide range of cancers. Although these treatments have extended longevity, these treatments also come with side effects, such as fatigues and dramatic drops in blood counts. Chemotherapy and radiation do not differentiate between good cells and bad cells, and, instead, they simply kill off all cells. These drops in both red and white blood cells have serious negative effects on people and can leave them susceptible to infections and numerous other health consequences of varying degrees of severity. In decades past, these drops were dealt with via transfusions. Unfortunately, transfusions may have serious health consequences, including the possible transmission of infectious diseases and allergic reactions to the transfusions. Stem cell treatments represent a possible approach that would mitigate these side effects, while addressing all of the symptomatic problems. However, it is important that the stem cell therapy needs to use best practice technologies, which may include concepts, such as mechanopriming and MSC cells. Even though this treatment has primarily been used to treat patients with cancer, it could be extended to treat patients with Parkinson’s Disease, rheumatoid arthritis, and a wide range of other autoimmune conditions. Of course, all of this is contingent on the results of future animal and human testing.