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What is Stem Cell Therapy?

Stem cell therapy uses stem cells and/or its derivatives to repair or regrow diseased, dysfunctional or damaged tissue. This is also called regenerative medicine. This offers new medical treatments and more opportunities for patients.

What are Stem Cells?

Stem cells are undifferentiated cells that can differentiate into specialized cells. With research, scientists have learned these cells can be directed to differentiate in a certain way. This means if a burn victim needs skin grafts, these cells can be “told” to regenerate new healthy skin. In time, scientists expect to be able to regrow organs that have been damaged instead of having to wait on a donor organ.

Stem Cell Therapy Treatment

There are only a few treatments that have been deemed safe and effective; they are as follows:

The most well-known treatment is bone marrow transplant using stem cells. Stem cells in the bone marrow are normally damaged due to cancer and the treatment that follows. The new cells are injected into the bone marrow and the damaged cells are replaced, this is also called conditioning.

Skin stem cell therapy has been used since the 1970s. It is reserved for patients with life-threatening or severe burns that cover a large area of the body. There is still much research to be done in this area, however, since the “new” skin does not have sweat glands or hair follicles.

In Europe, doctors have received conditional approval for treatment of the cornea for patients with severe injuries. This will repair the surface of the eye.

There are many other treatments currently undergoing clinical trials to evaluate if they will be considered safe and effective.

What is Stem Cell Therapy Used for?

With advanced science and research technology more and more diseases are found to be effectively treated with stem cell therapy. The following are some of the diseases currently being treated.

  • leukemias and lymphomas
  • bone marrow diseases
  • diseases where bone marrow treatment has failed
  • inherited immune system disorders
  • hemoglobinopathies
  • inherited metabolic disorders
  • myelodysplastic syndrome
  • multiple myeloma
  • certain malignant cancers
  • osteoarthritis

Stem Cell Therapy Side Effects

Side effects often depend on the severity of the disease and/or damage and the age of the person receiving the treatment. While most people may not experience any side effects, those that do could develop severe complications or even death. Some complications that could arise are:

  • rejection
  • damage to the organs
  • new infections
  • cataracts
  • infertility
  • cancer

Preparation

Your doctor will perform tests to ensure you are healthy enough to undergo a stem cell transplant. During this time, you will have a catheter (central line) inserted in your chest or neck. This is used for the transplant of the stem cells.

Next, you will undergo conditioning. This process will depend on the type of transplant you are getting, the disease to be treated and your health. During conditioning, you will receive chemotherapy and/or radiation. This will destroy cancer cells, suppress your immune system and/or prepare bone marrow for the new cells.

A preservative called dimethyl sulfoxide (DMSO) is used to protect the cells while they are frozen and then thawed for use. DMSO can cause some side effects; therefore, you may be given medication right before the transplant to reduce these and IV fluids during to help rid your body of the preservative after the transplant is over. Now you are ready for the transplant to begin.

Types of Stem Cell Transplants

If you will be using your own stem cells for transplant, this is called apheresis. During this preparation, you will be given a growth factor which will increase the number of stem cells in your body. This also moves them into your circulating blood so they can be collected during apheresis. A machine will separate the stem cells from your blood and then return the blood back to your body.

For an allogeneic transplant, a donor is needed. This is often called a stem cell or bone marrow harvest.

Your doctors will determine which is best for you based on your health.

What to Expect After the Transplant

In the days, weeks or months following the transplant, engraftment occurs; this is when new blood cells are made. Your condition will be monitored through any kind of tests your doctor decides is necessary. You may need to be treated for side effects or complications, so it is a must to stay close to the hospital or clinic for a few weeks to several months. If an infection or serious complications occur, you should expect to stay in the hospital for a longer period of time. If red blood cells and/or platelets are not reproducing quickly enough, your doctor may do a blood transfusion

The extent of the end result is different for everyone; however, it is intended to cure your disease, heal an injury and improve your quality of life. 

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