Supreme cells: The potency of stem cells

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The ground-breaking discovery of stem cells already occurred in 1961. The discovery of the ability of stem cells to self-renew and create the highly specialised cells in our bodies led scientists to the belief that these cells could potentially be used to treat various diseases and injuries.

Stem cells are essential to life and allow the body to develop, restore and repair damaged tissues and wounds. The amazing fact is that only a handful of stem cells are in control of producing the 200 specialised cells that make up the human body. Without stem cells, a human being would not be able to survive for long! Stem cell dysfunction can cause grave consequences to human health.

Stem cell myths exposed

1. Myth: Embryos and foetuses are the only source of stem cells for therapeutic purposes

Fact: Although the use of embryonic stem cells is controversial, they cannot be used for therapy. The main sources of stem cells for therapy are bone marrow, perinatal stem cells such as cord blood and tissue, and adult stem cells. The most non-invasive method of obtaining stem cells is from perinatal tissue, which includes the collection of cord blood and cord tissue from a baby at birth. This procedure is not harmful to the mother or baby. CryoSave is the leading Cord Blood and Tissue Stem Cell Bank in South Africa.

2. Myth: Stem cells are all similar

Fact: Various kinds of stem cells exist and can be classified by their potential to differentiate into other kinds of cells. In order of potency: totipotent (such as those found in embryos that can turn into any kind of tissue) and then there are pluripotent, multipotent, oligopotent and unipotent cells (which can only differentiate into one kind of cell).

“Various perinatal sources of stem cells can be harvested and stored at birth for future benefit of the child.”

3. Myth: Stem cells from bone marrow is seen as the best source

Fact: Bone marrow is a good source for harvesting stem cells, as it contains various growth factors and haematopoietic cells that are useful for transplantation although bone marrow stem cell numbers decline in their renewal ability and in numbers as we age. However, various perinatal stem cells (i.e. from umbilical cord blood and tissue, placenta, amniotic fluid) are the most naïve sources of stem cells. There are various other adult sources of stem cells (i.e. adipose stem cells from fat) that are a far richer source of stem cells than bone marrow.

4. Myth: Stem Cells must be banked at birth to allow for future stem cell therapy

Fact: Various perinatal sources of stem cells can be harvested and stored at birth for the future benefit of the child. Many adult stem cell types are currently being banked and used for the treatment of joint, ligament and back pain or injuries and, for example, various inflammatory conditions. Adult stem cells can also be manipulated to become more naïve.

5. Myth: Cells can be turned into stem cells

Fact: Cells can be induced to become pluripotent cells through the introduction of various transcription factors such as the Yamanaka factors discovered in 2006.

6. Myth: Stem cell therapy is illegal

Fact: If used autologous, adult and perinatal stem cells therapy (including cord blood and cord tissue), is legal in most cases if they have not been manipulated or expanded (ex vivo increase in numbers of the original amount of stem cells). There are also more than 80 FDA-approved therapies for bone marrow and umbilical cord stem cells. Currently more than 5 000 clinical trials are registered for stem cell research and treatment and are awaiting approval, with more being registered every day.

7. Myth: Stem cell therapy is dangerous

Fact: As is the case with any medical procedure, a risk exists. Autologous stem cell therapy is safe in the sense that you have no chance of transplant rejection and also no risk of infectious disease transmission. Stem cell transplants minimise the risk of heart attacks associated with certain surgical procedures.

8. Myth: Stem cell therapy is unproven

Fact: About 50 000 transplantations are performed yearly, with the number increasing 10-20% per year. More than 20 000 people have now lived five years or longer after receiving a stem cell transplant.

9. Myth: Stem cells are the definitive cure for everything and suitable for everyone

Fact: Although stem cells have great potential, they are far from proven able to heal every known disease. Factors such as the origin of the stem cells, the age and health of the patient, the indication, the therapeutic preparative strategy and the genetic make-up of an individual can all play a role.

“Stem cells are essential to life and allow the body to develop, restore and repair damaged tissues and wounds.”

10. Myth: Stem cells that have been infused will always travel to the site of injury

Fact: Although stem cells are inherently able to migrate to the site of injury, they can have difficulty migrating due to the site of administration, the site of the injury or a limited lifetime when used therapeutically.

11. Myth: Most religions oppose stem cell research

Fact: Many religions are against the use of embryonic stem cells for research and potential treatment. Newborn and adult stem cells do not have this stigma.

12. Myth: A person has to travel abroad for therapy

Fact: In certain instances, the approval of stem cell therapies varies tremendously from country to country. The FDA has guidelines for the use of stem cells treatments that have a proven scientific background and have improved healing of many diseases.

13. Myth: All clinical trials that are listed have been approved for therapy

Fact: The US Clinical Trials website has more than 270 000 listed clinical trials and not all have been approved for therapy. Your healthcare provider is the only one to be able to carefully evaluate the potential use and full approval of a specific clinical trial for specific stem cell therapy.

A whole new future: Treatments with stem cells

The emerging research into cord blood and cord tissue stem cell use shows bright new avenues of treatments. We have only touched the superficial layers in recognising the superior power of these cells in treating diseases and disorders. The development of expansion technologies for cord blood stem cells and cord tissue stem cells, means that effective autologous therapy will be possible well into adulthood.

CryoSave aims to develop this technology in the near future. Apart from the mesenchymal stem cells found in cord tissue, research has shown that cord blood stem cells can also be successfully used for renewal or repair of non-hematopoietic tissues. Both these sources of mesenchymal stem cells can have potential use in treating of, for example, neurological disorders, autoimmune diseases, type-1 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis and wound healing. These cells have also shown effective modulation and reduction of inflammation, and treatment of most of these diseases that appear later in life.

Following the latest trends in stem cell awareness inspires hope for a bright new future.