Stem Cells: The Medicine of the Future?

Recent advances in stem cell research are lighting the way towards the eventual treatment of some of the most serious and profound medical conditions known to humanity. In fact, wherever cells are failing to do their job properly, whether through physical damage, the effects of disease or faulty genetics, there are often existing stem cell therapy available, or at least promising results from an active area of stem cell research. Even such previously untreatable conditions as blindness and spinal cord damage could soon be overcome by the power of the stem cell.

Sources of Stem Cells

There are two broad sources of stem cells: the controversial embryonic (ESC) stem cells, which require the destruction or manipulation of a human embryo (or discarded zygotes from in-vitro fertilization, or umbilical cord cells); and adult (somatic) stem cells, often taken from the patients own body (autogenic). It is this latter type of stem cell that we use at the Gulf Coast Stem Cell & Regenerative Medicine Center, extracting adipose derived stem cells (ADSCs) from fat tissue via a process known as stromal vascular fraction (SVF) harvest and deployment. The hitherto common source of stem cells from bone marrow (BMDSC), which is primarily used after bone marrow ablation in cancers like leukemia and multiple myeloma, is too complex and laborious, it takes too long because the few cell require expansion and is too expensive to use at point of treatment clinics. It confers no clinical advantage over using ADSCs.

How Stem Cells Work

Stem cells are undifferentiated cells, meaning they contain all of the genetic information needed to theoretically produce any other type of cell. Progenitor cells, which are often used in stem cell therapy, are stem cells which have been encouraged to begin the process of differentiation into a certain type of cell- e.g. a cardiac muscle cell or a red blood cell.

In practice, there are a lot of factors that have to come together to make stem cell therapy a success. Some cells, such as red blood cells (RBCs), can be grown and harvested outside the body, while others need to be grown in vivo and stimulated by specific types of hormones or growth factors. Still others, notably stem cells for tissue regeneration, have to be introduced as ‘seeds’ to ensure they differentiate properly. In short, stem cell therapy is a highly complex field and there is much research still to be done.

The Current State of Stem Cell Therapy

Stem cell treatment has been successfully used in the treatment of leukemia since the late 1950s, with Dr. E. Donnall Thomas performing the first successful bone marrow transplantation between a pair of identical twins (1). Earlier allogeneic (donor) transplants had failed due to rejection by the patient’s body. In 1968, Dr. Robert A. Good became the first physician to use bone marrow transplantation to successfully treat an immunological disease (2).

From these early beginnings arose the diverse and exciting field of stem cell research we have today. For example, with so much research going on in so many areas of stem cell therapy, treatments could soon be available for a wider range of diseases, including certain defiant immunological conditions. Take Type I diabetes, caused when the body destroys its own beta cells in the pancreas. These glucose-responsive cells are vital for regulating blood sugar by producing insulin; and so Type I diabetics have to monitor and manage their blood sugar themselves by controlling their glucose intake and regularly injecting themselves with insulin. Researchers have recently been able to grow cells that are remarkably similar to beta cells in the laboratory, and these have successfully restored glucose control in rats. It seems only a matter of time before such cells can be introduced into humans, revolutionizing the treatment of this serious form of diabetes.

The potential of stem cell therapy to treat neurodegenerative diseases, such as Parkinson’s Disease, and other neurological disorders (e.g. Alzheimer’s, stroke and brain injury) is another busy area of research with researchers focusing on the cultivation of neural stem cells and their stimulation to produce glia and neurons. Much of this research has been conducted on mice in laboratory conditions but there are some promising signs that we could be witnessing the beginnings of a revolution in the treatment of such devastating conditions.

The use of stem cell therapy for those who have suffered damage to heart tissue is also a lively field, with stem cells able to be pre-treated to become cardiac muscle progenitor cells. These cells should then be able to reverse the tissue damage that occurs during cardiac injury although more comparative studies will be needed before firm conclusions can be drawn. Trials are being conducted at this time in a few British hospitals, where admissions with acute myocardial infarction receive stem cells via a catheter into the stented, culprit coronary artery. The results so far are gratifying, with significant repair of the infarcted muscle in those treated when compared to those who have received only standard treatment.

The future of blood transfusion and gene therapy also look bright given the ability to grow RBCs outside of the body. This is achieved using the growth factor erythropoietin to stimulate the BMDSCs to divide into erythrocytes (RBCs).

Even Autistic Spectrum Disorders (ASDs), those poorly understood yet increasingly prevalent pathologies, have been observed to respond well to stem cell therapies using mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs). A 2014 World Journal of Stem Cells study explained that MSC treatments may work through a combination of factors including the promotion of growth factors and the restoration of brain plasticity through integration with existing neural networks (5).

A few of the most awe-inspiring developments in the field of stem cell research suggest that we might be on the path to successfully reversing spinal cord damage, bringing back movement and sensation to the paralyzed, and even to restoring the gift of sight to those once thought to be permanently blind. Clinical trials have already produced positive results in the treatment of severe macular degeneration, using stem cell-derived retinal pigment epithelial cells.

Less serious conditions could also soon be treated by groundbreaking stem cell therapies. For example, some forms of baldness occur when hair follicles simply stop producing hair. By stimulating existing stem cells, the normal growth of hair can return. Even the long-standing reality of just two sets of teeth could be overturned if current stem cell research on tooth formation bears fruit. The differing pathways of epithelial stem cells in rats lead to the continuous growth of their incisors, but the cessation of their molar growth (4). Once this process is fully understood, it should be possible to regrow human teeth rather than replace them with dentures.

In the mid 2000s, researchers from Japan reached a huge milestone by revealing how genes could be inserted into human cells to change them into pluripotent stem cells (cells able of differentiating into any type of cell required). By eliminating the need for a blastocyst (early stage of an embryo), the chief moral dilemma involving the use of pluripotent stem cells could now be resolved, accelerating the progress of stem cell research.

In the USA, the FDA have approved a number of umbilical-cord derived stem cell products for the treatment of certain blood and immune system diseases. In 2015, giving a promising sign of things to come, the European Commission granted the company behind Holoclar®, an eye treatment containing limbal (from limbus tissue) stem cells, conditional authorization to market its product within the EU following its approval by the European Medicines Agency.

So when it comes to stem cell therapy, it seems that both the research and legislation is beginning to move in the right direction. One day soon stem cells will stop being the medicine of the future and will become one of the benchmarks of modern healthcare.

Do you, or a family member, have to live with an orthopedic disability or joint disease, neurological disorder, fibromyalgia, heart or lung disease, autoimmune disease, erectile dysfunction, prostate problem, lichen sclerosis or incontinence? The warm and welcoming Gulf Coast Stem Cell & Regenerative Medicine Center, located in Ocean Springs on the Gulf Coast, is currently pioneering treatments for a wide range of diseases and disorders including those listed above.

If you are currently exploring your therapy and pain relief options, please call the Center on (886)855 4823 or visit the Center’s website at http://www.gulfcoaststemcell.com, for more information. Our minimally-invasive SVF deployment procedure safely extracts stem cells via liposuction, under local anesthesia.