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What are Stem Cells?

Stem cells are unspecialized cells that have two important characteristics that distinguish them from other cells in the body.

  • Stem cells can replenish their numbers for long periods through a process of multiplication called cell division.
  • After receiving certain chemical signals, they can differentiate, or transform into specialized cells with specific functions.

Different Sources of Stem Cells?

Depending upon the source, stem cells are further classified into the following types:

  • Embryonic Stem Cells: These stem cells are derived from the early stage embryo( 4-7 day embryo) known as blastocyst stage. These are the cells from where the whole embryo and a human being is formed.This gives an idea of their potential to form all organs of our body and in a short time. This is because these cells have the dual ability to undergo unlimited self renewal (divide indefinitely) as well as to differentiate/transform in all fetal and adult stem cells and their mature forms.Due to this very reason, these cell also have a tendency to form tumors called as teratomas, which may come up as a complication later in life. Currently, due to this reason, the use of these cells is restricted to research only.Apart from scientific issues, the ESCs are surrounded by ethical concerns and controversies regarding use of live embryos for deriving or making these cells.
  • Umbilical Cord blood stem cells: Umbilical cord blood is the blood left over in the placenta and in the umbilical cord after the birth of the baby. The cord blood contains a huge amount of stem cells.These stem cells have been found to be useful for treating genetic disorders of blood, eg. Sickle cell anaemia , thalessemia, etc.Its use for other disorders , like spinal cord injuries, cerebral palsy, etc. is coming into vogue recently. The cells have to checked/cross matched with that of the recipient before use(just like it is done for any organ transplant) to avoid rejection.Most of the cells in the umbilical cord blood are immature , hence the cross matching criteria used is much less stricter than for normal organ transplant.
  • Adult Stem Cells: These are the stem cells found in most organs of the body , even in adult life, eg. liver, skin, bone marrow & even in some pockets in the brain!They mainly help in replenishing the dying cells and regenerate damaged tissue. They are also known as somatic stem cells.Use of adult stem cells has been in practice for decades now. It is commonly referred to as bone marrow transplantation ( for blood disorders,eg. Sickle cell anaemia, thalassemia, etc.), which was taken from blood relatives, mainly, siblings. It is referred to as allogenic bone marrow transplant. Use of one’s own stem cells is referred to as Autologus stem cell transplant and is being tried in diseases affecting organs other than the blood.

  • What is Stem Cell Therapy?

    Stem cell therapy is the use of stem cells to treat certain diseases. Stem cells are obtained from the patient's own blood bone marrow, fat and umbilical cord tissue or blood. They are progenitor cells that lead to creation of new cells and are thus called as generative cells as well.

    How Does Stem Cell Therapy Work?

    The biological task of stem cells is to repair and regenerate damaged cells. Stem cell therapy exploits this function by administering these cells systematically and in high concentrations directly into the damaged tissue, where they advance its self-healing. The process that lies behind this mechanism is largely unknown, but it is assumed that stem cells discharge certain substances which activate the diseased tissue. It is also conceivable that single damaged somatic cells, e.g. single neurocytes in the spinal cord or endothelium cells in vessels, are replaced by stem cells. Most scientists agree that stem cell research has great life-saving potential and could revolutionize the study and treatment of diseases and injuries.

    What are the Diseases that Can be Treated by Stem Cell Therapy?

    Stem cell therapy is useful in certain degenerative diseases like:

    • Cerebral Palsy - spastic, hypertonic and ataxic.
    • Diabetes Mellitus
    • Duschene Muscular Dystrophy and other Myopathies
    • Motor Neuron Diseases
    • Mental retardation
    • Alzheimer’s
    • Multiple sclerosis
    • Transverse myelitis
    • Hemiplegia (Stroke)
    • Autism spectrum disorders
    • Neurological disorders due to hypoxic brain damage.
    • Brain Hemorrhage and Cerebral -Infarct
    • Spinal Cord Injury and Paraplegia
    • Dementia

    What is the Procedure of Stem Cell Therapy?

    If stem cell therapy is an option, a detailed treatment plan is prepared depending on the type of treatment necessary. Once the patient has consented to the treatment plan, an appointment is scheduled for bone marrow extraction. Please note that this is a minimally invasive surgical procedure, so it is important that patients do not take any blood-thinning medication in the ten days prior to the appointment. It is necessary for each patient to consult their own doctor before discontinuing this type of medication.

    The treatment procedure include:

    • Bone Marrow Extraction
    • Isolation, Analysis and Concentration of the Stem Cells in the Laboratory
    • Stem Cell Implantation

      • Bone Marrow Extraction: Bone marrow is extracted from the hip bone by the physicians. This procedure normally takes around 30 minutes. First, local anesthetic is administered to the area of skin where the puncture will be made. Then, a thin needle is used to extract around 150-200 ml of bone marrow. The injection of local anesthetic can be slightly painful, but the patient usually does not feel the extraction of bone marrow.

        Isolation, Analysis and Concentration of the Stem Cells in the Laboratory: The quality and quantity of the stem cells contained in the collected bone marrow are tested at the laboratory. First, the stem cells are isolated. Then a chromatographical procedure is used to separate them from the red and white blood corpuscles and plasma. The sample is tested under sterile conditions so that the stem cells, which will be administered to the patient, are not contaminated with viruses, bacteria or fungi. Each sample is also tested for the presence of viral markers such as HIV, hepatitis B and C and cytomegalia. The cleaned stem cells are counted and viability checks are made. If there are enough viable stem cells, i.e. more than two million CD34+ cells with over 80 percent viability, the stem cell concentrate is approved for patient administration.

        Stem Cell Implantation: The method of stem cell implantation depends on the patient's condition. There are four different ways of administering stem cells:

        Intravenous administration:

        • Administration via catheter using angiography
        • Direct injection into the target area
        • Retrobulbar Injection

        It is important to understand that while stem cell therapy can help alleviate symptoms in many patients and slow or even reverse degenerative processes, it does not work in all cases. Based on additional information, patient's current health situation and/or unforeseen health risks, the medical staff can always, in the interest of the individual patient, propose another kind of stem cell transplantation or in exceptional situations cancel the treatment.

        Success Rates of Stem Cell Therapy in India

        There is about a 60% to 80% overall success rate in the use of stem cell therapy in both India and around the world. However, success rates vary depending on the disease being treated, the institute conducting the procedures, and the condition of the patient. In order to receive complete information you will have to contact the medical institutes and ask specific questions concerning the patient's condition.

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