Stem cells have had both medical science and people’s imaginations in a buzz. These cells have been claimed to heal practically any ailment and have anti-aging properties, for both our internal organs, as well as the skin for cosmetic purposes.
But as we all know, cure-alls that seem too good to be true usually are. This is the same for stem cell therapy. In fact, there is only one condition—at least for now—where stem cells have been proven to effectively and safely treat. It is cancer and only the very specific types of cancer, those that involve the blood and immune system—the leukemias. For treatment of leukemias, umbilical cord blood is an increasingly popular source of stem cells.
Now we are talking about three important concepts here: Leukemia, stem cells, and umbilical cord stem cells. Let’s take a step back and tackle each item one at a time.
What is leukemia?
Very briefly, leukemia is a type of cancer affecting the blood, primarily the immature, rapidly multiplying blood cells in the bone marrow where our mature blood cells originally come from. As the original blood-forming cells are abnormal and invasive thus cancerous, the blood cells they form are also abnormal and cancerous like them.
The treatment for leukemia is strong combinations of chemotherapy drugs that are meant to wipe out all the cancerous cells. However, in most cases, by the time these drugs have obliterated the cancer cells, they have also wiped out all the normal blood-forming cells. This leaves the patient in a potentially deadly situation where he has very low levels of red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets. Enter the stem cells.
What are stem cells?
Stem cells are rapidly dividing cells having the potential to transform into any other kind of cell in the body. These are usually immature cells that transform and mature into various cell types. There are many types of stem cells. Because of their potential to transform into any cell, theoretically, they can be used to repair a wide variety of illnesses by being able to replace diseased cells with new healthy ones.
In leukemia treatment, stem cells could, therefore, be used to replace the blood-forming cells of the body after chemotherapy has wiped out all the cancerous cells (together with the original healthy cells).
Where do you get stem cells for leukemia treatment? They can either be from the patient’s own body (autologous stem cells) or from the stem cells of other people, either from a relative or from a closely matched donor (allogeneic stem cells).
Autologous stem cells are usually the better choice. Since these are your own cells, the white blood cells emerging from them are less likely to attack other parts of your body. The downside of the commonly used procedure of harvesting autologous stem cells (from a patient’s blood) is that it poses a slight risk of harvesting a number of cancerous cells, too. These cells can then end up re-transplanted back into your body.
Allogenic stem cells from a healthy person pose no risk of cancerous stem cells being introduced into the body. However, there is a chance that the transplanted stem cells can attack the body of the new host, which it may consider as a foreign object. This is called graft-vs-host reaction.
Fortunately, there is a third way of getting stem cells—umbilical cord blood stem cells.
What are umbilical cord blood stem cells?
If you recall, the umbilical cord is the connection of an unborn child to the mother. The infant’s blood flows through the umbilical cord to the placenta. At the placenta, umbilical cord blood is enriched with oxygen and nutrients from the mother and releases waste by-products. The enriched blood then returns to the fetus. As we can see, the blood in the umbilical cord has the same contents as the rest of the blood of a fetus—red blood cells, white blood cells, platelets, and lots and lots of stem cells from the young baby.
In the past, cord blood was discarded together with the umbilical cord after birth. But today, medical science has allowed us to collect umbilical cord blood, and harvest and preserve the stem cells it contains—ready to be used in case the infant later develops diseases which the stem cells can be used to treat.
Stem cells from cord blood have the potential to address the downsides of conventional autologous and allogeneic stem cells.
Since the source of the stem cells is the child at a time he/she does not have leukemia, there is no risk of harvesting cancerous cells.
There is also virtually no risk of graft-vs-host reaction.
Umbilical cord stem cells also have a much lower chance of rejection.
Cord blood banking in the Philippines
Storing of umbilical cord blood stem cells, also called cord blood banking, is now an option for Filipinos who want to ensure that their children have their own stem cell specimens for future use in case of medical need. Private medical facilities such as Stemcord and Cordlife offer cord blood banking and even boast of various payment plans to ease the financial brunt of these procedures, which are not cheap. However, many would consider this as a form of health insurance for leukemia—one that includes special cells made especially just for you.
If you are interested in cord blood banking, talk to your obstetrician months before your expected delivery date about this potentially life-saving procedure.
Many people have taken advantage of the foretold wonders from stem cells, claiming that this medical breakthrough for leukemia and immune system diseases can cure any disease. Audacious claims have included cures for paralysis, heart disease, and all forms of cancers. Do not waste your time and money on unproven claims.
Beware of stem cell treatments offered without approval of the Food and Drug Administration.
Beware of stem cell treatments not proven effective and safe in a clinical study involving hundreds of patients.
Unproven treatments can lead to serious health problems and useless financial costs.
Be suspicious of clinics offering treatments using stem cells that come from body parts not related to your disease, or even stem cells from animals.
Be similarly suspicious of clinics offering the same stem cell treatments for different health conditions.
Finally, beware of clinics that use patient testimonials, newspaper reports, articles on the internet, and other persuasive language instead of studies on humans published in reputable medical journals when marketing their treatments.