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Sorting out the Stem Cell Confusion

By Dr. Dipnarine Maharaj M.D., MB, ChB, FRCP (Glasgow), FRCP (Edinburgh), FRCPath., FACP

Sorting out the Stem Cell ConfusionOpen up a news site online and you are bound to see at least one story on stem cells.  Just today I saw that stem cells from teeth can be used to treat dementia, breast milk stem cells could heal disease, and plant stem cells are the key to younger looking skin.  With all of the information out there, it is difficult to dissect fact from fiction.

Who is a stem cell physician?
It seems that these days everyone is a stem cell expert.  The primary reason for this is because there are no standardized criteria for who can perform stem cell treatments.  That’s why you have most likely seen everyone from your local physical therapist to your local psychologist start to offer stem cell therapy.  While a stem cell specialty does not exist amongst physicians in the United States the way someone would specialize in neurology, there are major universities that offer fellowships in stem cell transplantation and other educational programs that are designed to educate physicians on stem cells.  If you ask your physician or other expert if they have any specialized training from a major university or certification from an accrediting body specifically for stem cells, you’ll find that about 90% of the so-called experts will be eliminated.

What are stem cells?
Once you’ve found someone reliable you can trust on stem cells, the first question most people ask is what stem cells are.  Simply put, a stem cell is a cell that has the ability to replicate itself and turn into another type of cell.  Most people think all stem cells are embryonic, or are derived from human embryos.  Embryonic stem cells are a very small subset of what is going on in stem cell therapy.  A little known fact is that embryonic stem cells have no current practical clinical applications.

However, there are adult stem cells, which we have in our bodies right now, regardless of our age.  From all of the scientific data that is available, the safest form of stem cells to use for therapeutic purposes is our own adult stem cells, not from a donor.  With our own adult stem cells, there is no risk of rejection and we have over 40 years of data showing its efficacy.  Stem cells from other donors pose rejection risk, which ultimately carries a 20-45% mortality rate.  Stem cells from xenogeneic sources such as sheep can be equally as dangerous creating complications such as graft versus host disease.

What stem cells can do for you now?
Stem cells may seem like a brand new area of medicine, but the reality is, stem cells have been used in patient treatment since the 1960’s.  Predominantly, stem cells are being used today to treat blood cancers like leukemia, lymphoma, and multiple myeloma, as well as metabolic disorders, bone marrow failure, and immunodeficiencies.  An individual also has the ability to collect and store his or her own stem cells for future use.  The process is similar to how platelets at a blood bank are collected.  However, the key behind banking your own stem cells is making sure that there are enough of them there in case you needed a stem cell transplant.  Normal levels of circulating stem cells in our blood will not yield enough cells to do a full stem cell transplant.

In terms of research and new treatment that’s where the possibilities become limitless.  We have already seen strong pilot data on adult stem cells being used for Parkinson’s, Strokes, Diabetes, Alzheimer’s, ALS, and so much more.  Many of these treatments are still being developed and are considered experimental.  In the future, we will most likely be able to generate certain tissues and organs from a patient’s own stem cells.  Currently, certain parts of the body can be regenerated with stem cells such as the trachea.

What to expect with stem cells?
The one thing that you should not expect is a miracle cure.  If anyone promises you that, run, not walk, as fast as you can out of there.  Even with blood cancers, stem cell transplants are not always 100% effective.  Each patient responds differently and each case has its own unique circumstances.  For blood cancers, scientific data shows that stem cell treatment has improved long term disease free survival.  In Scotland, I was part of the group that pioneered the use of a patient’s own stem cells for leukemia in the 1980’s. This is now a standard of care.  Stem cell uses and efficacy continue to expand and improve.   Despite these advancements, it is vital to have realistic expectations not expect a quick fix for major problems.

Dr. Dipnarine Maharaj MD iMD s a hematologist/oncologist with over 30 years of experience in stem cell transplantation, in both the United States and the United Kingdom, where he completed at three year fellowship in stem cell transplantation at the Royal Infirmary at the University of Glasgow, Scotland.  Dr. Maharaj is currently the Medical Director for the South Florida Bone Marrow/Stem Cell Transplant Institute, a Joint-Commission Accredited facility that treats patients with cancer and chronic illnesses, and the Stem Cell Cryobank, an AABB Accredited facility where both adults and newborns can have their stem cells privately collected and stored.  For more information contact: 561-752-5522, info@bmscti.org.

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