There is no doubt that stem cell therapy holds enormous potential. Unfortunately, this potential also brings with it side-effects, some particularly severe. Such was the case during a therapy that used human foetal stem cells.
The boy in the case suffered from a rare genetic disease known as Ataxia Telangiectasia. This disorder affects many areas of the body and can cause significant disability. The body does not coordinate properly and those who suffer from the disease have a weak immune system as well as problems with their respiratory system.
Unexpected Consequences of Stem Cell Therapy
After undergoing foetal stem cell therapy at a clinic, the boy developed abnormal growths in his brain and spinal cord. The growths were found approximately four years after he had received the stem cell therapy.
While there have been some cases reported where experimentation on rodents resulted in the growth of tumours after stem cell injection, this hadn’t been documented in humans after foetal stem cell therapy. Researchers also knew that this risk in rodents could be reduced if the stem cells were differentiated before they were injected. This means that the stem cells were coaxed into the desired body cell for the therapy prior to injection.
Examining a Benign Tumour
But how did the researchers know that in this boy’s case, the tumour was indeed from the stem cell therapy? It was all understood after the spinal cord growth was operated on and removed from the boy. Doctors found that it looked like a glioneuronal tumour, which is a benign kind of neural tumour. After more examination, it was determined that this tumour couldn’t have stemmed from the boy’s own tissues.
A Weakened Immune System
As they tried to understand what went wrong, they considered that the very weak immune system that is commonly seen in Ataxia Telangiectasia could have contributed to the growth. In a sense, the boy’s body was an ideal vessel to nourish the growth of this kind of tumour.
In a person who has a healthy immune system, the normal ‘checks’ on the body would be more likely to prevent a tumour from establishing itself. We have known for some time now that there is the potential for stem cells to trigger the growths of tumours but the reality has been that this is a rarity.
What it Means for Stem Cell Research
Although this rare side-effect of stem cell therapy may be used as part of a case against stem cell research, this would not be a fair approach. Even the authors of the report state that their findings do not imply that we should stop stem cell research.
Rather than put a stop to stem cell research, it has been suggested that we need to spend more time looking at the Safety of Stem Cells. We should try to find out more about what can potentially go wrong and then develop safeguards to reduce any risks associated with stem cell therapies. This way, we can get the most benefits from stem cells while minimising any chances of side-effects along the way.