Separating Science Fiction From Science Fact: Can Stem Cell Therapy Really Cure Autoimmune Disease?
Today, the majority of us have a computer in our pocket that’s millions of times more powerful than the computing power of NASA 40 years ago.
We’re able to 3D print prosthetics, houses, and organs, ride on hoverboards seen in movies of the 80s, and soon be able to buy our own jetpacks.
We live in the future. And the rate in which this future world is changing is not slowing down for anyone.
New inventions and discoveries emerge every week—if not day—spanning the fields of neurology, robotics, medicine, astronautics, physics, and energy, among others. For many of us we get wind of such news through the big media outlets, whose best interest is often not to inform us of the cold hard facts, but to grab and keep our attention—at whatever cost.
Unfortunately, this means we’re subjected to a whole load of hot-air-filled stories and exaggerated claims that make it difficult to decipher the facts from the fiction and get a grip on the world around us.
The reality is many inventions and discoveries are a long way off, while some are closer than we think. No exception to this is the field of stem cell therapy.
We frequently hear how stem cell treatment can be used to cure disease, rebuild lives, do away with faulty genes, and solve the organ transplant problem; but as an area that strikes a nerve with millions of people across the globe who’re eagerly awaiting its arrival, stem cell therapy is not a topic to play around with.
New medical studies and clinical trials on stem cells are emerging quickly, alluding to possible future treatments and cures, but what’s the reality of stem cell therapy today? We know they’re often used in the treatment of Leukemia, but can they really be used to reverse Multiple Sclerosis, regrow full size organs fit for humans, and offer a permanent solution to fighting cancer and the growing dilemma of our age, non-communicable disease?
The fact is taking a treatment from the lab and into a medical setting is a long and difficult process. The clinical trial phase can take well over a decade to complete, and so some private stem cell companies have skipped the process altogether and already released products to market.
Many people are giving these stem cell treatments a try, often fleeing to other countries—despite the treatments not yet being approved by drug administration companies like the FDA or covered by many health insurance polices.
Stem cell therapy is a complex and constantly changing space. Join us in the first instalment of our three part series as we separate the cold hard facts from the hyped up rhetoric, and start to discover exactly what stem cells are capable of today. We begin by taking a closer look at stem cell therapy and autoimmune disease.
Rebooting The Body’s Immune System
If diabetes, celiac disease, IBS, and rheumatoid arthritis have themselves been the centre of their own epidemics, then autoimmune disease as a whole is a problem of unimaginable proportions.
With over 80 types, autoimmune disease can affect your body in a variety of different ways, attacking different types of body tissue, disrupting organ function, and causing abnormal organ growth.
However, whatever shape or form autoimmune disease comes in, there’s always the same culprit behind it: a malfunctioning immune system.
No one is exactly sure why it happens, but at the onset of autoimmune disease the body’s antibodies and immune cells begin to lose their ability to distinguish between the body’s own cells and those of antigens or harmful foreign substances, attacking the body’s tissue and leading to chronic inflammation.
Because of this, in order to treat autoimmune disease you first need to wipe the body clean of the faulty immune cells. Currently this is done using aggressive treatments such as chemotherapy. Unfortunately this means treating the disease can be risky for patients and hugely challenging for doctors.
Affecting millions of people worldwide—with an estimated 20 percent of the US population suffering from one or another—and currently having no curative therapy but rather a spectrum of treatments that work to relieve symptoms, cracking the problem of autoimmune disease is high on the agenda of stem cell researchers and prominent in the mind of the public.
So let’s discover which autoimmune diseases stem set cell therapy holds the most promise for treating.
Diabetes type 1
Stem cell treatment has shown to dramatically improve symptoms of diabetes in real life cases.
Several human studies have shown the effectiveness of stem cell therapy in treating diabetes type 1, for example in this study at the Harvard Medical School, where researchers assessed the long-term effects on sixty-five individuals with type 1 diabetes. Their final results showed a third of the participants successfully gained and maintained insulin independence.
Stem cell treatments are effective and available from private organisations but have not yet been approved by drug administration companies.
Many groups around the world are working on stem cell therapies for arthritis, with such trials as the 3 year, Robert Jones and Agnes Hunt Orthopaedic Hospital Foundation Trust (RJAH) study on 100 people, funded by Arthritis Research UK. But, despite very encouraging results and individual success, we are still waiting for conclusive evidence for it to advance into medical settings.
Multiple Sclerosis (MS)
Stem cell therapy has been shown to treat and reverse the symptoms of MS in patients.
Over the past few years, many trials have produced promising results regarding the effects of stem cell treatment on people suffering from MS. And more recently, in a 14 year long human study, stem cell therapy has been definitively shown to halt and reverse some of the worst symptoms of MS in a group of 23 patients.
Stem cell research surrounding Lupus is just beginning to expand into clinical trials. So far, stem cell treatments in mice have lead to clear improvements in the disease, and some studies such as this one at Nanjing University Medical School, China, have produced promising results. Of a group of 40 patients suffering from Lupus, doctors in China reported 60% saw a major or partial clinical response during a year, with an overall 93% survival rate following treatment.
Results from case reports have shown the benefits of stem cell treatment, but clinical trials are limited.
To date, the only concrete results from a randomised controlled study of stem cell treatment in patients with Crohn’s disease, are that from the Autologous Stem Cell Transplantation International Crohn’s Disease (ASTIC) trial group. In this trial, 45 patients with moderately to severely active Crohn’s disease—who had shown extreme resistance to other forms of treatment (immunosuppressive drugs)—improved their gastrointestinal scores significantly and achieved remission. However, patients generally needed to continue the use of immunosuppressive drugs.
A Bright Future Of Stem Cell Treatments For Autoimmune Disease
Why does the body’s internal defence system begin to attack its own vital cells? It’s a question researchers and medical professionals are still perplexed by to this day. But as we’re discovering more in practice—through trailing emerging treatments—and in the lab—by looking deeper into the mechanisms of the body such as the process in the thymus where T cells learn how to distinguish between self and non self cells—we are moving closer and closer to finding the answer.
This knowledge will hopefully lead to the removal of destructive and intensive immunosuppressive drugs, and the introduction of more targeted and personalised techniques—for example CRISPR-Cas9.
But one thing we do know for sure is that autoimmune disease is caused by faulty immune cells which arose from hematopoietic stem cells. This makes it clear that by looking at our stem cells we’re on the right track to finding an answer. Through essentially reversing this process and returning the immune system back to that of a new born, we can reboot the immune system and restore the body’s natural, healthy line of defence. Although the way in which we do this may change significantly in the future, stem cells will be central to making it possible.
Visit our website today to find out how you can safeguard your children’s future health by storing stem cells from their milk teeth.