Although many people may think of a transplant to mean replacing a diseased organ with another one, such as in heart or liver transplants, stem cells have an important and often life saving use for treating disease.
A stem cell transplant doesn’t involve surgery in the same sense as an organ transplant and the procedure is simplistic in comparison. Its benefit, however, can be just as enormous.
What is a Stem Cell Transplant?
In basic terms, a stem cell transplant is the infusion of healthy cells to replace diseased or damaged ones. If successful, the healthy replacement stem cells will integrate into the body and give rise to more cells that can all take on the necessary functions for a specific tissue.
Current Stem Cell Transplant Treatments
There are current treatments that have shown success over the years and it is anticipated that the therapies will be further refined to improve success rates.
Cancer, particularly leukaemia, is an important disease for stem cell transplants; bone and peripheral blood stem cell transplants have been used for decades. A patient receives chemotherapy or radiation treatment to destroy the cancer cells but unfortunately, healthy cells are also damaged. A stem cell transplant can replace the lost and damaged cells with fresh, functioning ones, which can then provide the red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets that are important to metabolism, clotting and immunity. The other benefit of this treatment is that the newly formed white blood cells can further improve immune function such that they destroy any remaining cancer cells in the marrow.
Aplastic anaemia is a condition that is not cancerous but rather, involves a reduction in the production of blood cells by the bone marrow. A stem cell transplant can replace the dysfunctional marrow with new functioning stem cells. These stem cells then travel from the bloodstream to the marrow where ideally, they begin to work properly and produce healthy working blood cells.
Potential Future Transplant Treatments
Success has already been shown in studies with stem cell transplants for a variety of diseases but more research is required before these can be performed regularly. Some of the diseases that could benefit from stem cell transplants are:
- Parkinson’s disease – replacing destroyed brain cells with healthy ones.
- Type I diabetes – providing viable functioning stem cells for the pancreas.
- Retinal diseases – transplanting stem cells to replace those in the retina that have been damaged by disease.
What Are The Risks?
Stem cell transplants still have several risks associated with the procedure. Some people will find they experience few issues while others may require consistent monitoring and repeated hospital stays. Some of the complications that can occur with a stem cell transplant are:
- Damage to organs or blood vessels
- Graft versus host disease
Thus, although some people will experience few complications, others may find they suffer from short and long-term problems associated with a stem cell transplant. The success varies widely and it is impossible to predict who will experience side effects and to what degree they will occur.
In most cases, the benefits of stem cell transplants will likely outweigh the risk of complications and these techniques can truly be life-saving for conditions such as leukaemia and aplastic anaemia. It is hoped and anticipated that future research can yield successful therapies for a broader range of diseases.