Stem Cells 101

Stem cells have been making headlines a lot in the last few years. Stem cell therapy is a revolutionary procedure with the promise of completely changing the future of orthopedics. It’s currently being tested in many clinical trials across the nation – and has shown highly promising results. While many people know of stem cells, not many understand this fascinating aspect of medical science, despite over 40 years of study. Let’s start with the basics.

What are stem cells?

In essence, stem cells are cells that haven’t decided what kind of adult cell they’re going to become once they mature. These cells can regenerate for a long time to produce either more stem cells or even specialized cells for the body. In humans (and other mammals), there are two broad types of stem cells, embryonic stem cells and adult stem cells, which are found in various tissues.  In adults, stem cells act as a kind of universal repair system for tissues, replenishing and helping to rebuild them. Stem cells are usually harvested from humans by extracting them from bone marrow, fat cells (via liposuction), processed from donated blood or, as is frequently referenced in the media, taken from umbilical cord blood just after birth.

What is the value of stem cells?

Stems cells are important in a developing human for many reasons, but the value of stem cells is often most associated with the value that they could have for adults. In some adult tissue components such as bone marrow, muscle, and the brain, certain adult stem cells have been able to generate replacements for cells that are lost through normal wear-and-tear, aging, injury or disease. In fact, given their strong regenerative abilities, stem cells offer the possibility of new ways of treating diseases such as diabetes and even heart disease. Researchers believe that stem cell therapy could open doors to new methods of treating existing musculoskeletal problems without invasive surgical procedures.

Some stem cells are used to test the safety and quality of new drugs before testing on live subjects. These stem cells must be programmed to behave like the tissues being targeted for treatment. Programming techniques are still being studied, however, the potential benefits are dramatic, including saving lives and millions of dollars in failed research and development.

Stem cells can be used to facilitate transplants by reducing organ transplant or drug rejection. For example, hepatotoxicity (chemical-driven liver damage) and drug-induced liver injuries account for a significant number of failed new drugs (and for withdrawing them from the market). Stem cell-derived hepatocyte-e-like cells could be used to detect toxicity early in the drug development process.

Is stem cell therapy new?

Some stem cell therapies have been used for over 40 years. For example, bone marrow stem cell transplants have been used to treat and better understand blood disorders such as lymphoma and leukemia. In fact, stem cells are being used to treat more than 80 diseases, and medical trials are being conducted to treat many other conditions.

Is stem cell therapy dangerous?

As with any major surgery, it’s important to conduct your research and take your time before committing to a course of treatment, including treatment involving stem cells.

Next steps

Stem cell therapy is a fascinating and developing area of medical science. If you wish to learn more about stem cell therapy and what it could mean for you, please don’t hesitate to contact our team at Coastal Orthopedics. We’ll walk you through your options, answer your questions and help you decide on the best course of treatment for your needs.