How well do you know your stem cells?
For many people, the mere mention of stem cells, whether it be research, new trials, or breakthrough treatments, conjures up a cocktail of mixed emotions.
You may first grimace and recall the great stem cell debate, in which the act of growing embryos and extracting their stem cells for research purposes was prohibited. Or you may smile and picture Dolly the sheep, the first animal cloned from an adult stem cell. Whatever your response, it’s likely you experience at least some amount of confusion.
This is unsurprising; ever since their existence was proven in the 1960’s, stem cells have been at the centre of the most rapidly advancing area of modern medicine. They’ve now been identified in several areas of the body, manufactured in laboratories, proven to treat and even reverse diseases such as diabetes and MS, and used to grow whole new organs and regenerate existing ones.
We are all hosts to millions of these little therapeutic powerhouses, so the least we can do is take a few minutes to find out a bit more about them. Discover these six facts you probably didn’t know about your stem cells and learn the incredible potential they hold.
Stem cells come from four main sources
In the 1960’s, scientists carried out the first successful bone marrow stem cell transplant. In the decades that followed, they figured out a way to derive stem cells from the umbilical cords and human embryos. And just after the turn of the 21st century, they harvested stem cells from our teeth.
To date, these four sources of stem cells and their methods of extraction have been widely researched and refined. So much so that we now categorise stem cells according to their source:
- Embryonic stem cells: pluripotent stem cells extracted from early stage embryos and developed in the lab. They hold enormous potential for treating disease, but their study and use is controversial.
- Bone marrow stem cells: hematopoietic stem cells harvested from femoral bone marrow and commonly used in stem cell transplants.
- Cord blood stem cells: derived from the blood inside umbilical cords immediately after birth. Available in limited amounts and used as a replacement for bone marrow stem cells.
- Tooth stem cells: mesenchymal stem cells found in the soft tissue at the centre of our teeth. This type of stem cell has proven to treat a vast number of ailments and injuries and is at the heart of current advances in stem cell therapy.
These four sources hold the most promise and are all currently undergoing extensive research.
Hundreds of clinics offer stem cell treatments
Today, in many parts of the world, stem cell therapy is not a distant future but a very real reality.
According to a report published by the journal Cell Stem Cell, there are over 500 stem cell clinics operating in the United States alone, with hundreds more spread across the globe. Many of these clinics are lead by stem cell researchers and offer treatments backed up by hard data, however, with the industry being largely unregulated, some clinics are exploiting patients by selling stem cells as a miracle cure that can rid patients of everything from wrinkles to muscular dystrophy to MS.
Stem cells are proving to be able to treat a wide range of conditions and injuries in clinical trials. However, questions such as what type of stem cells should be used and what’s the safest and most effective way for them to be administered, still need to be answered.
Stem cells from donors may cause issues
You have no other perfect stem cell match other than the stem cells from your own body. This means transplants using donor stem cells come with risks of complications which are often life-threatening and at times fatal.
A common complication that arises from allogeneic stem cell transplants (stem cells from a donor), is graft-versus-host disease (GVHD). This disease causes donor stem cells to recognise your body’s tissues and organs as foreign and attack them. GVHD typically affects the skin, digestive tract and liver, and causes symptoms such as joint or muscle pain and vomiting.
Receiving a transplant of donor stem cells has also been reported to put the host at risk of others infections, organ damage, infertility, and cancers.
Stem cells have been used in hospitals for decades
For more than fifty years, doctors have used bone marrow stem cells to help treat patients suffering from cancers and disorders of the blood like leukaemia and lymphoma. Stem cells collected at birth from umbilical cord blood have also been used for decades as an alternative to bone marrow transplantation, particularly in the treatment of genetic blood disease in children.
As well as being instrumental in rebuilding the immune system cell by cell, stem cells are often used to help graft tissues for a range of skin, bone and corneal diseases and injuries.
Different types of stem cells have different purposes
What many people don’t know is that there are several types of stem cells, all ranging in ability, function, and source.
Until recently, hematopoietic stem cells were the most widely discussed. These multipotent stem cells are found in high quantities in bone marrow and umbilical cord blood and give rise to all types of blood cells. This makes them hugely valuable for treating cancers and disorders of the blood, however, limited when it comes to treating other ailments and injuries.
In more recent years, research into mesenchymal stem cells has expanded and lead to them overtaking hematopoietic stem cells as the most cited in academic literature. These incredible cells are pluripotent — meaning they have the ability to give rise to all the body’s basic cells and tissues. Another major advantage of mesenchymal stem cells is that they are found in rich concentrations in our teeth.
There’s also another type of stem cell which has gained much attention by researchers: IPS cells. IPS cells, short for induced pluripotent stem cells, are cells which are artificially engineered in the lab to possess the same qualities as the pluripotent or master cells. As well as being used in treatments, these cells are powerful tools for studying disease and testing new drugs.
Stem cells can be used for many diseases
Due to their role in the body as a natural repair system and the providers of all new cells, stem cells hold unlimited potential for regenerative and therapeutic application.
The most established and widely practised method is the transplantation of hematopoietic stem cells to treat conditions of the blood and immune system. However, stem cells are also frequently used in skin grafts for burns patients with extensive injuries and also other treatments outside of the health care system.
Due to the relative youth of the technology, many of these treatments are as of yet unregulated by government administration authorities. Even though many have a grounding in the results of rigorous clinical trials, patients seeking treatments should approach clinics making bold claims with caution. One area stem cells are making a significant impact in is the treatment of sports injuries.
As stem cells vary in their ability according to their type, here are just a few of the diseases and conditions treatable by mesenchymal stem cells:
- Parkinson’s disease
- Heart Disease
- Spinal cord injuries
- Retinal diseases
- Alzheimer’s disease
- Type I diabetes
- Damaged organs
Contact us today to find out how we can help safeguard the health of your children by storing stem cells from milk teeth.