The application of the stem cell approach in the treatment of human disease continues to be a growing area in the health sector. One of the common questions by patients and their relatives is the desire to know the advantages as well as the disadvantages of this technological advancement in medical practice, and how this treatment can improve their health condition.
There are both positive and negative aspects to human stem cell research. What are these upsides and downsides? Are stem cell transplants really worth it? Find out in this article.
What is stem cell therapy?
Stem cells (SCs) are undeveloped cells that are commonly seen in many multicellular organisms. They are defined by their capacity to divide repeatedly before eventually differentiating into a variety of distinct specialized cell types.
They are also known as “master cells,” out of which “daughter cells” are formed. These daughter cells have the potential to differentiate into new SCs or a variety of other cell types. Cells of the brain, heart and body muscle, bone, and blood cells are examples of specialized cells that perform specific activities in the body.
Cell-based therapy refers to the application of healthy SCs to replace damaged cells or tissues in treating certain medical conditions or disorders. They also provide other therapeutical effects, which will be described below.
Current cell-based therapies
Hematopoietic stem cells (HSCs), such as those derived from the umbilical cord, peripheral blood, or the bone marrow, are no longer the sole type of SCs that may be employed to treat a variety of conditions. Mesenchymal stromal cells (MSCs) are also used in managing diseases and disorders nowadays, and it is gaining much recognition.
Both types of cells are capable of differentiating into other types of cells. However, what differentiates them is their spectrum of differentiation. HSC only transforms into new blood cells alone, while MSC can transform into any tissues of the body — muscle, bone, cartilage, nerve, or organ tissues.
There are a lot of other medical conditions that can benefit from the use of these cells in the regeneration of damaged or diseased tissue. Stem cells and diabetes, in particular, are starting to gain traction. The therapy is also used in arthritis, burns, heart disease, Parkinson’s disease, lung fibrosis, cirrhosis of the liver, fistula, traumatic brain injury, and more. It is also called regenerative medicine.
How does the technology work?
The procedure begins by harvesting healthy SCs from the patient or a donor. As soon as the sample has been harvested from the body, it is spun and concentrated in a centrifuge to extract the important components. Then cells are cultivated (multiplied) in the laboratory to prepare a cell-based drug. After that, patients receive an injection of the concentrated stem cell solution into the damaged site within their body (local injections), or intravenously for systemic effect.
For the therapy, SCs are cultivated in accordance with medical criteria so that their dose (amount) may be personalized for each patient.
Meanwhile, certain stem cells are engineered to perform a “specific” role. In these situations, some of them are specially employed to restore impaired cells of organs like the brain, heart, red blood cells, and others.
Now that we have an idea of what these cells are and how regenerative medicine approaches are being used, let’s talk about their positive and negative sides.
Advantages of cell-based technology
Discussed below are some of the most notable advantages that have been documented over the years in studies and clinical trials:
- Reversal of severe tissue damage
Occasionally, injuries are so severe that functions of a person’s body appear to have been irreparably damaged. Stem cell transplantation may be the key to recovery in such situations. This is due to SCs stimulating the regeneration of damaged tissues, which gradually relieves pain and inflammation, leading to lost or impaired function restoration. It also makes joints and muscles work better.
- Minimal recuperation period
With stem cell treatment, you do not face a temporary loss of performance, as after traumatic injuries or surgeries, and you do not have to stay at the clinic for a long time. On the contrary, this approach is capable of accelerating the healing process for people recovering from such interventions or incidents.
- Help mitigate nerve injury
Certain medical conditions, such as multiple sclerosis, can result in substantial nerve damage, impacting the functionality and mobility of various human body parts. Studies conducted that therapy with cellular products helps to treat nerve injury and restore mobility and independence in patients with neurodegenerative disorders.
- General anesthesia is unnecessary
No anesthetic is required with stem cell treatment in case donated cells are used in the treatment. This aspect of surgical procedures can be frightening for some people. Also, being placed under anesthesia can have adverse effects on others. A numbing gel may be all that is needed for injections of SCs.
- Low risk of rejection or side effects
Treatment with cellular drug injection does not pose a danger of rejection by the body’s immune system. This is because you are simply employing cells that were obtained from within your own body. When donated cells are used, possible rejection can be seen only in a small number of patients, although it has no significant side effects, and still launch the therapeutic effect of injected cells.
Disadvantages of stem cell technology
Like any other medical procedure, cell therapies have both advantages and disadvantages. Here are the most important ones to consider.
- It is expensive
This kind of therapy that is offered by regenerative medicine centers tends to be expensive. This is true given that it is based on innovative science technologies for treatment purposes. As well, it may provide an option for managing symptoms in several health conditions that are considered to have no cure, including autism, multiple sclerosis, COPD, or spinal cord injury.
There are several overhead costs involved in the therapy, including pre- and post-treatment care, additional therapies, round-the-clock support from all medical personnel, and licensing fees for every procedure, among others.
- Uncertain long-term side effects
The success rate of this method for a wide range of ailments and conditions has been on a steady rise over the years. However, the long-term effects of the approach remain unknown at this time. Several studies are currently being conducted to evaluate potential stem cell transplant side effects, but no certain conclusions have been reached yet. Some researchers and specialists still consider cell-based therapy to be an experimental type of medicine, despite the positive research results for many diseases.
- Long waiting time for the result of treatment
Adult stem cells don’t have many therapeutic options without reconditioning or multiplying them because adults only have a small number of these cells. Preparation of the cell drug may take up to several weeks. Therefore, in many cases, it is advisable to use a ready-made cell product based on donor cells. In addition, self-renewal inside the body after the introduction of SCs may take a while to occur causing a long time for the relief of symptoms in a patient to manifest. As well, the effectiveness of the therapy varies from nothing to significant improvement, depending on the situation, and it can’t be predicted.
Scientists have dedicated a significant amount of time and resources to leveraging stem cell technology in developing therapies to manage various medical conditions. However, it has been found to have both positive and negative aspects.
Contentious or not, SCs have the potential to revolutionize medicine for their ability to improve health conditions in many diseases, including heart-to-treat ones. The merits are substantial and scientifically-proven, while the demerits (like long-term side effects) are mostly unsubstantiated and still under review. In the end, it’s a matter of choice.
So, which do you prefer? Would you try this cutting-edge therapy? Or would you stay away and stick with conventional medicine?