Stem cell therapy is a popular topic in the MS forum and some members are already tracking and evaluating their experience. How does it work? Are there risks? To find answers to your stem cell therapy questions, we asked our team of in-house health professionals to take a look at the current research
What are stem cells?
Stem cells are different from other cell types because they can continuously replenish themselves. They have the ability to develop into any type of cell and act as an internal repair system in your body.
Because stem cells have the potential to be a renewable source of replacement cells, researchers started investigating how they could be used to treat a variety of diseases.
What is stem cell therapy?
In stem cell therapy, a patient’s cells are replaced by new cells, either their own (autologous) or from someone else (allogeneic). The first step in this process involves growing stem cells in a lab and then transforming them into a specific cell type. These specialized cells are infused into the patient where they may multiply and help repair damaged tissues.
However, more research is still needed to fully understand how to use these cells for regenerative or reparative medicine.
What’s the latest research in stem cell therapy and MS?
Many studies are evaluating which type of stem cell therapy and which delivery method is the most safe and effective for MS. Here’s a recap of new approaches and results:
- Rebooting the immune system: Hematopoietic stem cell transplant (HSCT) replaces the cells in the bone marrow which in turn supports your body’s immune system. Stem cells are collected from your blood or bone marrow and then later infused back into your body to regenerate your immune system.
- In between the process of collecting the stem cells and re-infusing them, you might use chemotherapy, biological agents, or radiation therapy to wipe out the existing immune system so it can be built up again. This method is thought to slow down the progression of MS.
- Stem cells to promote repair: In MS, a patient’s immune cells attack the protective layer that surrounds the nerves (myelin) and the cells that produce myelin (oligodendrocytes). The loss of myelin and damaged neurons causes scar tissue to form in the damaged areas.
- Stem cells may be able to replenish those neurons that are lost and reduce inflammation and scarring. Clinical trials are testing stem cells and their ability to stimulate myelin repair.
Still in the early stages: More extensive clinical trials are in progress to evaluate the safety and efficacy of stem cell therapy for MS. No federal laws have banned stem cell research in the United States, but there are some restrictions on funding and use of stem cells. Right now, there are only 3 studies available in the US that are recruiting patients to study stem cells in MS within the US. Find out about ones near you.
What are the potential risks?
Because stem cell therapy destroys and rebuilds your immune system, it may increase your risk for:
- Immune rejection of the infused cell: This might happen because your body considers stem cells as a foreign element.
- Tumors: Stem cells have the ability to duplicate over their lifespan. This may lead to their potential for growing uncontrollably into malignant tumors. Healthcare providers are aware of this possibility and with newer practices, they may be prevented.
- Transmission of foreign pathogens: Donor to recipient transmission may result in the introduction of viral, bacterial, or fungal pathogens that may lead to adverse reactions.
Considering stem cell therapy?
Talk to your healthcare provider and decide together if this is the right treatment or option for you. The International Society for Stem Cell Research (ISSCR) has prepared a list of things to know for those considering stem cell treatment:
- Beware of stem cell treatments offered without regulatory approval or outside registered clinical trials. Some stem cell treatments may not require FDA approval, but those that involve manufacturing specific cells do, so it’s important to talk to your provider to understand if the treatment you’re considering is being used appropriately. Find more information here.
- Be wary of clinics offering treatments for a wide variety of conditions or diseases.
- Watch out for clinics that market their treatments, instead of using clinical evidence.
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