by Mila McManus MD
I began learning about the miracles of stem cell therapy several years ago at a functional medicine conference. I saw pictures of scarred heart tissue from a heart attack that disappeared after the injection of stem cells. It was quite amazing. I didn’t pay much attention to the potential applications in the real world until some information landed in my lap about a year ago. Since then, I’ve been doing a lot of research, watching a docuseries and other videos, reading books, studies and articles feverishly, attending lectures at conferences, and sharing notes with colleagues. Today I’m presenting some details about what stem cells are and what they do, as well as the risks, benefits, uses, and controversy.
Definition of stem cells:
Stem cells are the cells in our bodies that act as our raw materials. They can self-renew, meaning that they can create more new stem cells, or they can differentiate into (i.e., turn into) other types of cells, such as blood cells, bone, muscle, and organ tissues.
Types of stem cells:
There are 2 main types of stem cells.
- Hematopoietic stem cells give rise to all types of blood cells
- Mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs) form bone, muscle, fat, heart tissue, etc.
Where stem cells are sourced from:
- Bone marrow
- Adipose (i.e., fat) tissue
- Embryos (illegal in the US)
- Umbilical cord blood or tissue
- Amniotic membrane and fluid
- Menstrual blood/tissue
Couple of fascinating facts about stem cells
- Doubling time (i.e., how long it takes for stem cells to replicate themselves) slows as we age. In a fetus, stem cells double every 24 hours. In a 35 year-old, they double every 48 hrs. In a 65 year-old, they double every 60-72 hours. This means that, at the end of 30 days, 1 fetal stem cell will become 1 billion cells, and 1 stem cell from the 35 year-old will become only 32, 000 cells, and 1 stem cell from a 65 year-old will yield a dismal 200 cells.
- The number of stem cells declines with age. In newborns, 1 out of every 10,000 cells is a stem cell. In an 80 year old, 1 in every 2 million cells is a stem cell (see graph)
Benefits of stem cells:
- Reduce inflammation
- Modulate the immune system (strengthen it when/where weak, and dampen overactivity)
- Regenerate tissues
- Anti-aging due to ability to repair damaged tissue
- Stimulate angiogenesis (i.e., formation of new blood vessels, which then carry oxygen and other nutrients to tissues for healing and optimal function)
- Stimulate your own stem cells to work better and harder
Risks of stem cell therapy:
- Infection (extremely rare. You are at risk from infection any time you have any type of injection with a needle)
- Lack of benefit for various possible reasons
- Growth of unwanted tissues
- Transient fever or flu-like symptoms
Various applications for which stem cells have been used and/or studied
- Cancer treatment
- Chronic inflammation (e.g., autoimmune disease, fibromyalgia)
- Arthritis in various joints
- Healing of torn ligaments and tendons
- Neurodegenerative diseases (e.g., Alzheimers, Parkinsons, stroke, etc)
- Aesthetic procedures (e.g., improving skin appearance, facilitates better results with face lifts)
- Wound care
- Spinal cord injuries
- Heart disease, heart failure
The Controversy surrounding stem cells:
- There are currently thousands of ongoing studies using stem cell therapy for various diseases
- Big Pharma wants its piece of the pie
- Large universities are fighting for patents to get their piece of the pie
- Researchers are working on manipulating stem cells to become patentable drugs
- Embryonic stem cells are controversial in their own right and are illegal in the US. They are still used in other countries
- Story of people going blind with stem cells-this was about 3 patients undergoing experimental injections of stem cells directly into their eyes. The theory is that it was a chemical preservative in the stem cells that caused the blindness, and not the stem cells themselves
- Tumor growth with stem cells—has been only with use of embryonic stem cells
- They are NOT FDA approved (they are natural, and therefore not under the jurisdiction of the FDA)
- Most uses of stem cells are considered ‘off label’
- Yours vs theirs argument: Proponents of “autologous adipose” derived stem cells (i.e., cells obtained from your own fat tissue) argue that it’s better to use your own cells than those of another person (e.g., umbilical cord from a healthy full-term newborn) because you run the risk of contracting a communicable disease, particularly one that hasn’t even been discovered. While that’s a valid theoretical risk, it’s important to note that 1) no such infection has ever been reported, and 2) umbilical cords are obtained only from healthy, full-term, prescreened newborns and mothers. Furthermore, the tissue banks test for infectious agents beyond what blood banks do for blood transfusions. The argument on the allogeneic side (using other people’s cells) is that MSCs lose activity and potency with age, so why use old dysfunctional cells when you can use young, active, and robust cells. Studies have proven, in vitro, that younger MSCs work better than older ones.
- Injection of expanded cells is not legal in the US (yet). Expansion means that cells are obtained and then cultured for several days to increase the volume of cells by orders of magnitude (e.g., from millions to billions). One can culture the cells in the US, but then the patient must travel to another country to have those cells injected or infused.
- According to Dr Neil Riordan (published in 2017), “over 40 studies published on the use of mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs) in a wide range of chronic and acute health conditions have been found to have no serious adverse reactions. In particular, there have been no adverse events reported with the use of umbilical cord mesenchymal stem cells, which appear to have the highest safety profile among the four most commonly used MSC types: bone marrow, fat tissue, menstrual blood, or umbilical cord.”
- Dr. Riordan also stated in his book that in 2012 a meta-analysis was conducted that included 8 randomized controlled trials of patients receiving MSC treatment for a range of disease conditions. The only adverse reaction that the analysis detected was transient fever. They found NO evidence of cancer, immune reaction, organ system complications, toxicity, infection, or death.
If you’d like to learn more about regenerative medicine, call us at 281-298-6742.
Stem Cell Therapy: A Rising Tide by Dr Neil Riordan
The Healing Miracle docuseries