Nothing brings us back down to earth as hard as when we hear someone we know has been diagnosed with a life-changing illness or disease.
That is of course unless it hits us closer to home, affecting a parent, brother or sister, one of our kids, or even ourselves.
It’s something we think will never happen to us, muttering the likes of “oh it happened to them, but they have a history of problems in the family”. Yet conditions like cardiovascular disease—the number 1 cause of death in the world—rampage on without a care, destroying the lives of millions of individuals and families around us.
It’s a terrifying thought. But one which serves as an important and stark reminder that our lives and time on this earth are completely outside our control. That is until now.
Research into stem cells and their capabilities has been going on for over half a century, and in recent years we’ve started to see more and more real life cases demonstrating their incredible powers in fighting debilitating disease.
This is largely due to modern day knowledge and technology which is allowing us to understand more about how stem cells work in the body. We’ve come along way since the controversial extraction of embryonic stem cells and their unexplainable effects; today we know more than ever, the extraction of stem cells is easier than ever, and stem cell banking and therapy are becoming expansive industries in their own right.
The Master Key To Unlocking The Body’s Repair System
Widely regarded today as being the future of healthcare, stem cell therapy is a form of therapeutic treatment in which stem cells are used to treat patients suffering from disease and illness.
One of the main reasons stem cell therapy has received such a plethora of interest and press recently is due to the incredibly versatile properties of a specific group of stem cells called mesenchymal cells (MSCs).
These microscopic building blocks of life are what’s known as pluripotent cells—cells which have the ability to differentiate into any other cell type in the body.
Having this quality means mesenchymal cells have a seemingly unlimited potential in treating a wide variety of conditions and diseases, from MS and Parkinson’s, to heart disease and diabetes, and everything in between.
To get an idea of the importance of this discovery and its current applications in medicine and healthcare, we’re going to take a look at a few common life-changing diseases which MSCs have already proven to be effective in treating, including cardiovascular disease, liver disease, and degenerative joint disease.
For each class of diseases we’ll provide examples of how stem cell treatments using MSCs have been effective in human trials (in vivo). This review is not intended to be comprehensive, but rather an insight into the range and success of clinical trials and studies which have been carried out (keep your eyes on our blog for the latest developments).
Autoimmune Disease: Diabetes Mellitus
With several studies and high profile news stories being released over the past few years, MSC stem cells are quickly becoming recognised as a promising treatment for both type 1 and type 2 diabetes.
Although type 2 diabetes, otherwise known as adult-onset diabetes, is often developed in later life and considered preventable through diet and lifestyle, type 1 diabetes is an unavoidable autoimmune disorder which naturally develops in children and young adults.
This makes it all the more crucial to find an effective long-term and side-effect free treatment. In a study by Boston Children’s Hospital at the Harvard Medical School, researchers combined the use of MSC stem cells with the more traditional treatment of immunosuppression therapy, and assessed the long-term effects on sixty-five individuals with type 1 diabetes.
When followed up after the first six months, a whopping total of fifty-nine percent of the individuals had achieved insulin independence (when the body can sufficiently make its own insulin). This is in striking contrast to the use of immunotherapy alone which generally leads to insulin independence in less than five percent of individuals.
At their final follow-up, around a third of the patients—thirty-two percent—remained insulin independent, but all showed positive markers for immune system recovery. Some patients did however suffer from adverse effects, and so the study indicates there is still work to be done in finding the right balance and mix of treatments.
Cardiovascular Disease: Heart Attack
As the leading global cause of death, cardiovascular disease accounts for seventeen million a year and is set to rise to twenty-four million by 2030.
A large chunk of those people are killed by heart attacks—a sudden occurrence which causes what’s considered to be permanent damage to the heart, due to a lack of oxygen rich blood flow.
However, stem cells are time and time again proving they may help to rebuild healthy hearts in heart attack survivors. In a study by the Interdisciplinary Stem Cell Institute at John Hopkins University, six patients with ischemic cardiomyopathy (caused by a lack of blood supply to the heart), were treated with MSC stem cells through injections into specific areas of the heart.
At three, six, and eighteen months following treatment, the patients were assessed by MRI on a number of parameters including scar size and heart wall thickness. At the eighteen month mark, patients were reported to exhibit decreased scar mass and an increased ability of the heart to contract and pump out blood.
These effects were impressive when compared to damaged segments of the heart untreated by stem cells, which exhibited little to no change. As the author points out, this particular study would have been strengthened with a placebo group, but the results are conclusive: treating damaged segments of the heart following a heart attack can drive improvement in its global functioning—not bad for what’s considered to be an irreversible disease.
Degenerative Joint Disease: Osteoarthritis
Degenerative joint diseases such as osteoarthritis (the most common), are characterised by the breakdown of cartilage in the joints of the body.
The chances of developing one of the many types of the disease increases with age, often presenting itself in mobility problems and pain in the hands, feet, and large weight bearing joints such as the hips and knees.
What’s critical about degenerative joint diseases is they generally have no specific cause, developing as a result of things like injury, natural wear and tear, excess weight, and genes. They are therefore a disease that many of us have come to deal with, and may yet have to deal with in our lives.
What’s more, treatments for diseases like osteoarthritis work more to manage its effects than reduce or address its cause. But many researchers such as those at Regenerative Sciences Inc. in Colorado, USA, are conducting studies using stem cells and proving they may hold the key to treating—and even reversing—degenerative joint disease for good.
In a study by the team mentioned above, MSC stem cells were isolated, cultured in the lab, and then injected into the knee of a patient with degenerative joint disease. Twenty-four weeks later, the patient was reported to have significant cartilage growth, increased range of motion, and decreased level of pain.
Stem cell treatment was not only proven to stop the problem in its tracks, but actually rewind its effects—demonstrating the unique and boundless possibilities of MSCs.
Muscle Disease: Muscular Dystrophy
Much like degenerative joint disease, muscle disease poses a big threat to the quality of life of individuals. Conditions such as tendinitis, muscular dystrophy, and myositis, which cause inflammation and degeneration of muscle in the body and have no definitive cure, are therefore at the centre of a number of clinical trials and studies on stem cells.
Of particular focus is muscular dystrophy, a group of inherited diseases grouped by weakness and wasting away of muscle tissue. Currently it’s only possible to slow the course of the disease with medications and physical therapy, however a growing body of research is suggesting stem cells are the solution to reversing the disease and regenerating muscle tissue.
One study published in the journal Cell Transplantation took one hundred and fifty patients diagnosed with muscular dystrophy, including Duchenne muscular dystrophy, limb-girdle muscular dystrophy, and Becker muscular dystrophy variants, and used MSCs in stem cell therapy with the aim of regrowing tissue and improving quality of life scores.
Each patient was treated by injecting stem cells into certain points in weak muscles, while also being trained in a vigorous rehabilitation therapy program.
Assessment after the treatment showed various improvements in muscle strength, including trunk strength, upper limb strength, lower limb strength, and gait, and much more favourable scores on mobility assessment scales such as the Functional Independence Measure and the Brooke and Vignos scales.
The researchers concluded that stem cell treatment using MSCs is a safe and effective way to not only improve strength and muscle regeneration abilities of patients with muscle dystrophy, but importantly improve their quality of life.
Liver Disease: Chronic Liver Damage
Due to the media focusing on its association with alcoholism, its often forgotten that the liver can be affected by over a hundred types of diseases, including conditions and diseases such as infection and inflammation (hepatitis), congenital liver disease, fatty liver disease, cirrhosis, and alagille syndrome.
As the liver plays a diverse role in many bodily functions, helping in everything from protein production and blood clotting to digestion and infection prevention, the problems which arise as a result of such diseases are many and varied.
What’s more, many of the conditions have inadequate treatments and can often, if left to become chronic, lead to the need for organ transplantation. This is a huge issue as with many less donors on the register than beneficiaries, thousands of people die each year waiting for an organ to be transplanted.
Liver diseases are therefore of chief concern to researchers, and stem cells just may hold the answer they are so desperately looking for.
One important study which looked at a chronic liver disease—a result of long-term damage to the liver—was conducted at the Department of Internal Medicine, Cairo University.
A group of twenty patients suffering from a particular form of the disease known as cirrhosis, which involves the loss of liver cells and irreversible scarring of the liver, were injected with MSC stem cells into the spleen.
Patients were followed up on monthly basis for the first six months following treatment. The results showed a significant decrease in the levels of enzymes and substances in the blood used to signify liver injury, as well as a significant increase in certain proteins which indicate growth.
Crucially the study proved stem cells are effective in improving liver function, and showed highly encouraging signs of being a viable alternative to organ transplantation.
Ocular Disease: Vision Loss
There are many common ocular problems which affect our vision, including myopia (short-sightedness), hyperopia (long-sightness), and astigmatism. However, these are generally minor and can be managed or even cured by non-invasive surgery.
Some eye problems such as cataracts, retinal disorders, age-related macular degeneration, and glaucoma, can be more troublesome, with little effective treatment options and a high risk of leading to permanent vision loss.
At present, there are currently many studies looking at new stem cell treatments to prevent loss of vision, thanks of the proven ability of MSC stem cells in repairing damaged tissue in the eye.
In a study on degenerative retina disorder at the University of California-Davis Eye Center, California, six subjects with irreversible vision loss either from retinal vascular occlusion, age-related macular degeneration, or retinitis pigmentosa, were treated with stem cell treatments using MSCs.
As the disease is permanent and progressive, any signs of positive activity would have been a significant breakthrough. Six months after treatment, assessments of visual acuity and full-field ERG (electrical activity in the retina) remarkably showed there was no worsening of vision.
Surprisingly, more detailed monitoring of the eyes showed that in some patients changes suggestive of new cellular activity were taking place—a typical sign for regrowth and recovery.
The results were yet another indication that stem cell treatment is safe and well tolerated in the eyes, as well as an incredible discovery that MSCs may be able to reverse the seemingly irreversible effects of degenerative retina disorders.
Neurological Disorders: Parkinson’s disease
According to the UN, up to one billion people suffer one or more of the six hundred disorders of the nervous system, including brain tumours, epilepsy, Parkinson’s disease, stroke, dementia, Alzheimer’s, autism, spinal cord injury, and multiple sclerosis.
With such a wide variety affecting a huge portion of the population, neurological disease has long been a focus area of stem cell research, maturing rapidly and displaying ever more promising results.
So successful are the results of stem cell therapy on patients that for one neurological disease, Parkinson’s—which affects ten million people worldwide—we can safely say stem cell treatments will emerge as an option for patients in the near future.
Clinical research from the Brazzini Institute of Radiology, Peru, provides just one example of this. Over a period of two years, thirty-six men and fortune women with Parkinson’s were closely monitored following stem cell treatment using MSCs.
Researchers evaluated progress of the patients at regular clinical and neurological examinations using internationally recognised scales for disability, activities of daily living, depression, and evaluation of Parkinson’s.
On review of the results, significant improvements were achieved across the board, signalling an overall decrease in severity of the disease and increase in quality of life.
What’s particularly impressive about these results and that of the many other studies on stem cell therapy in Parkinson’s, is that no complications were observed. Current treatment methods for Parkinson’s can be a case of picking the medication with the least side effects, and what’s more, they only help to manage the symptoms. Parkinson’s is one area the use of MSC stem cells is guaranteed to make huge progress.
Treatments How They Should Be: Highly Personal And Complication Free
The versatilely of MSC cells means the examples above are just a handful of the potential diseases and conditions which stem cells could, and in many cases will, be used as treatments for in the not too distant future.
No date is too soon as in many cases, current treatment methods such as medications, surgeries, and organ transplants, only offer a certain degree of management or a partial solution to treating disease, and often bring with them the risk of side effects, infection, immune rejection, and even death.
Stem cell therapy is already proving to offer a minimally-invasive alternative that is highly effective and generally free from complications and side effects—a hugely promising sign in an area that is only in the dawn of its development.
If such progress has been made with relatively limited knowledge, whose to say what will be possible in the next decade or two. Remaining questions like how to direct stem cells to the target tissue area and how to make sure they develop into the right cell type, are now on the cusp of being answered. And when they are, MSC stem cell-based treatments are set to become standard practice and available to the millions, if not billions of people who can benefit from it.
The future of healthcare is already here. Contact us today to find out how you can safeguard your children’s health by banking stem cells from their milk teeth.