Few of us know what they are or exactly how they work. But many of us have heard about the healing powers of stem cells, as well as the controversy surrounding them. Stem cells are well-debated and highly complex — with promises ranging from fixing damaged knees to regenerating receding hairlines.
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But what are stem cells? And, what’s all the fuss all about?
Director of the Center for Regenerative Medicine and Surgery, Amy Lightner, MD, shares the differences between stem cell types, how stem cells can be used and when to be cautious of claims that might be too good to be true.
What are stem cells?
When most of us think of stem cells, we probably recall images of Dolly the cloned sheep. While it’s true that Dolly was born of stem cells, her place in science history is just one of many advancements in the field.
In fact, there are many different types of stem cells, each of which has different responsibilities and abilities. What unifies them is their ability to regenerate into new cells.
“Regenerative medicine is an emerging field that uses innovative treatments to help regenerate or heal cell function that’s lost due to aging, disease or injury,” Dr. Lightner explains. “The way we achieve this is by using stem cells in large quantities, targeted to a certain area, that the body uses to promote healing.”
Adult stem cells
Adult stem cells are the only type of stem cells that are currently approved for medical use in the United States by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The term “adult stem cells” is a little confusing because they’re actually found in infants, children and adults. These cells live in a variety of tissue in our bodies — including bone marrow, muscles, your brain, your intestines and more.
Think of adult stem cells as a little army of cells that can regenerate themselves into new cells to maintain and repair the tissue or muscle where they’re found. The catch with adult stem cells is that they can’t become different types of cells (for example, blood stem cells can only become new blood cells, not skin or brain cells).
Embryonic stem cells
Unlike adult stem cells, embryonic stem cells have many more possibilities. Harvested during an embryo’s blastocyst stage (about five or six days after an embryo has been fertilized in a lab), embryonic stem cells have the potential to become any type of cell (called pluripotent cells). For these reasons, embryonic stem cells are the type of stem cells that generate the controversy most people associate with the topic.
What is stem cell therapy and what does it help treat?
Stem cell therapy has been around since the 1970s, when the first adult bone marrow cells were used to treat blood disease. A bone marrow transplant allows a recipient whose bone marrow cells have been damaged by chemotherapy or disease to receive healthy bone marrow stem cells from a donor.
“Those stem cells have the potential to mature within the blood system into different immune cells that recognize and fight off different types of blood cancer. And they also have the ability to heal,” says Betty Hamilton, MD, Department of Hematology and Medical Oncology.
Bone marrow transplants are currently used to treat diseases including:
While you may have heard about the use of stem cell therapy for knees, back pain, arthritis, hair loss, diabetes and more, no other types of stem cell therapy beyond bone marrow transplants have yet been approved by the FDA. But thousands of clinical trials are available — ranging from treatments for Crohn’s disease to multiple sclerosis and more. The common link between all these trials is the ability of the stem cells to reduce inflammation and repair damage to your body.
Stem cell therapies of tomorrow
Dr. Hamilton and Dr. Lightner agree that we’re only just beginning to scratch the surface of stem cell therapy. In recent years, during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, many clinical trials were underway to explore whether stem cells could be used to help treat the damaged lungs in people severely affected by the disease.
“I think ‘potential’ is the perfect word to describe stem cells,” says Dr. Hamilton. “We know they have these anti-inflammatory and regenerative properties where they can provide a significant improvement to someone dealing with a certain disease. There are so many diseases where inflammation happens, and something needs to be repaired, and so any help the immune system can get provides a lot of potential.”
Scientists are also researching whether adult stem cells can turn into pluripotent stem cells, which would allow the cells to change into any cell type without involving the use of embryonic stem cells.
Controversy and dangers
While the potential for stem cell therapy is great, doctors caution that we’re not quite there yet.
“I always tell patients that ask about stem cell therapy clinics or traveling overseas for stem cell therapy treatment that if it’s not something that is a clinical trial with FDA oversight, then they have no real way of knowing what’s being given to them,” advises Dr. Lightner.
This means more harm can come than good if you don’t know exactly what’s being given to you. “Or, in some cases, you’re just spending thousands of dollars for what ends up being saline,” Dr. Lightner says.
The best way to know that you’re receiving sound medical treatment is to make sure the one you’re considering is approved by the FDA on its Clinical Trials database.
Dr. Lightner cautions against treatments that sound too good to be true. While stem cell therapy has helped improve — and save — millions of lives, it’s best to know what exactly you’re signing up for by seeking out a qualified medical provider offering an FDA-approved clinical trial.