We’ve all heard of the groundbreaking yet controversial field of stem cell research. However, many are unaware that it’s only one type of stem cells – embryonic stem cells – which are controversial. Another type – autologous stem cells – are free of controversy because they are harvested from a patient’s own body.
What are Autologous Cells?
Autologous simply means that the cells have been taken from a patient. Almost exclusively, the cells used in autologous stem cell therapy come from bone marrow. Marrow is the material inside your bones.
How is it Used?
Although research is always moving forward, currently the most common use for autologous stem cells is cancer treatment. Diseases which attack or compromise the bone marrow, where blood cells are produced, are also common targets of stem cell therapy. These can include Hodgkin’s and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, leukemia, sickle-cell disease and certain types of anemia.
Since the radiation and chemotherapy used to combat many types of cancer can do severe damage to the bone marrow, autologous stem cells are often used to restore this vital part of the body after cancer treatment is finished. Patients have their cells harvested before undergoing radiation and chemotherapy, those cells are tested and treated if necessary to prevent re-introducing cancer into the body, they are stored until radiation and chemotherapy are complete and they are then given to patients.
In either scenario, the stem cells are administered through a central venous catheter, which enters a patient’s chest. It usually takes between one and three weeks for the harvested stem cells to trigger production of new, healthy cells in the bone marrow.
During treatment, most patients receive several transfusions in this manner. Not all patients will respond. Antibiotics are given to prevent and treat any infections which might occur, and the patient is often kept in isolation to minimize the chances of catching an infection while the immune system is suppressed (due to radiation and chemotherapy).
Where is it Done?
Autologous stem cell therapy is usually carried out in an outpatient hospital or clinic. However, due to the very modern nature of the treatment, many hospitals are not equipped to perform the treatment properly.
Patients often travel to be treated at a clinic or hospital which has all the equipment necessary. Researchers are hopeful that as innovations advance, more clinics and hospitals will be able to afford the equipment and training necessary, thus reducing the need for patient travel.
What Else is it Used For?
Ongoing research suggests that autologous stem cell therapy may be useful for a broad range of disease in the near future. These include Parkinson’s disease, a wide range of blood disorders and burn treatment.
Currently, some experimental work is being performed using autologous stem cells to treat solid cancers, also known as tumors. Success has been found when using these cells to treat breast and testicular cancer, but these results are still in the experimental stage.
Why is Autologous Stem Cell Therapy Used?
Using a patient’s own cells is much safer than using cells from another person’s body. Rejection is common when transplanting organs and the same can happen when transplanting cells. The human body is designed to reject anything which does not belong, and often the body views a lifesaving organ or cell as a foreign invader. However, the body does not reject its own cells, making autologous therapy a much more reliable form of stem cell treatment.