Stem cell therapy has gained lots of popularity in recent times. It involves use of stem cells (mostly from bone marrow and umbilical cord) for treatment of more than 80 disorders. Stem cell therapy has also been found efficient in treating in hematopoietic disorders (like leukaemia, thallassemia, aplastic anemia, MDS, sickle cell anemia etc), degenerative disorder (like diabetes, osteoarthritis, stroke, chronic renal failure, congestive cardiac failure, myocardial infarction, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease etc), neuromuscular disorders and for growing skin grafts for large area of the body in cases of life threatening third degree burns.
In a stem cell transplant, embryonic stem cells are first isolated and grown into the necessary specialized adult cell type. These mature cells are now ready to replace the damaged tissues. For instance- replacing neurons damaged by spinal cord injury, stroke, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, producing insulin for treating diabetes and heart muscle cells that could repair damage after a heart attack or in fact replacing any tissue or organ. But possibilities are endless. It is argued, studying how stem cells develop into heart muscle cells could provide clues about how we could induce self repairing heart muscle after a heart attack. Also, these cells could be used to study disease, identify new drugs, or screen drugs for toxic side effects. And all of this can be done without conventional cell transplantation technique.
But is stem cell therapy as promising as it is argued?
- Stem cell lines are not always ‘pure’ also using animal sources to provide nutrients for growth of stem cells in laboratory may contaminate them. Numerous diseases may thus be passed on through these transplanted stem cells increasing the vulnerability of patients.
- Since embryonic stem cells are young and grow quickly they have to be regulated into specialised cells very carefully. This requires a skilled medical expert and someone who can adapt its application to the patient’s individual need. If not these genetic abnormalities can lead to uncontrolled cell growth and even to tumour.
- After growing stem cells into desired specialised cells further growth needs to be suppressed prior to transplantation. However if not done well desired specialised cells may differentiate into undesired tissues even after implantation.
- Another challenging area is rejection of transplanted cells by patient’s immune system. Even if adult stem cell are used over embryonic stem cells to overcome immunological challenge, patients will need immunosuppressive drugs lifelong to eliminate any chances of body’s attack.
- The list of diseases treatable by stem cell therapy is not very large and non- availability of legit and registered clinics making the overall process risky and in many cases out of pocket.
- The process is long and time consuming involving preparation of carefully manipulated cells depending on the nature of disease and the affected tissue. The same stem cell treatment will not work for diseases affecting different tissues and organs within the body.
Failed instances of stem cell therapy
- Los Angeles pitcher Andrew Heaney was found in tight spot after so called miracle treatment -‘stem cell therapy’ could not repair his partially torn UCL elbow injuries.
- In the United States, around 5.7 million adults are living with heart failure. There is currently no cure for heart failure. Researchers found that using patient’s own cardiac stem cells to repair damaged heart tissue is ineffective also transplanted stem cells develop inflammatory properties that cause further heart damage.
- In other case a boy suffering from a rare genetic disease known as Ataxia Telangiectasia underwent foetal stem cell therapy. Four years after receiving the treatment boy developed sever abnormal growths in his brain and spinal cord.
- In the most recent case three women were found to lose their partial sight completely after being injected with specialised stem cells prepared to revive their retina due to mascular degernation.
- In another case a stroke patient ended up with a tumour along his spine after a series of stem cell injections.
- Reports of researchers finding out similarities between tumour cells and induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells—reprogrammed adult cells have also come up. Concluding that iPS cells potential for cancerous growth could stand in the way of using them therapeutically.
- With increasing popularity of therapy a number of fake clinics claiming stem cells, specialised tissues and providing advanced stem cell therapy have emerged. However many of these clinics are not FDA approved. Reports of FDA targeting these quack stem cell clinics is talk of the town.
As for now, we must say, safety of this therapy needs to be evaluated…