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Stem cell replacements


April 2011 

stem cell radiationIn recent years, amazing medical advances have been made through the use of stem cells. The dedicated work of scientists and researchers has resulted in increasing the range of treatments based on stem cell transplants often with truly excellent results.

Stem cells are found throughout everyone’s body but especially in bone marrow, the blood circulating in our veins (peripheral blood) and in the blood contained in the umbilical cords at birth. Umbilical cord blood is recognised as a particularly rich source of stem cells.

Why stem cells have become quite so important is because they are recognised today as the building blocks or master cells of our blood and immune systems. They are also very clever indeed because they have the ability to grow and develop into many different types of cells with specific functions. For instance a stem cell can develop to become a heart muscle cell to help repair a damaged heart or, as some people put it, restore it to its original natural health.

As with all complex science, it is a very wide subject that is not easy to understand without depth of knowledge and it is easy to become misled and confused. Cord blood stem cells, for instance, are similar to bone marrow stem cells but are not the same as embryonic stem cells. Embryonic cells are different from adult stem cells especially because embryonic stem cells have the ability to become all cell types while adult stem cells are thought to be limited to certain cell types.

And so it goes on. Also, it is not quite as simple as taking any old stem cell, popping it in and it will grow into a required new cell for that area. However, with the current level of knowledge, medical teams are making tremendous progress and the number of cases successfully being treated through stem cell replacements is growing every year.

The breadth of treatments is also increasing including areas such as hip replacements where patients’ damaged bones have been repaired “naturally” through the use of their own stem cells. It has now been discovered that new brain cells can be “grown” from human embryonic stem cells; this raises the exciting future potential of transplants for people suffering from Alzheimer's disease which kills the brain cells vital for memory.

There have also been great successes in stem cell treatments for certain types of cancers including leukaemia and other conditions that affect bone marrow.

In stem cell treatment, you may receive your own stem cells back or you may be given stem cells from another source, possibly someone else’s stem cells or donor cells.

Collecting stem cells in not an easy matter and of course collection methods can vary depending on exactly what is being done. Generally, stem cells from bone marrow are usually targetted. One method of collection starts with daily injections of a growth factor for 10 days plus possibly a small dose of chemotherapy. This is to ensure your bone marrow is making a high number of stem cells. These stem cells will move from the bone marrow into the bloodstream and regular blood tests will check the number of stem cells in your blood. When the levels are high enough, you will lie down and a drip will be put into your arms and attached to a machine. Blood passes out of one drip into the machine which filters out the stem cells before passing the blood back into your body. These stem cells can then be frozen.

The whole procedure can take around three to four hours.


Despite the advances, there are set backs. Rejection of the cells is a problem; mistakes in the chromosome of adult stem cells have also been identified, raising fears that tissues made from them would also be abnormal.

But generally stem cell therapy is a major breakthrough with truly enormous potential. There are now commercial banks storing stem cells and you can arrange for embryonic stem cells to be taken at birth and stored for future use.

It can all be a very scary futuristic subject, but if stem cell replacement has the ability to prolong the life of a loved one, then we should all be very grateful for the enormous amount of work and effort that is currently being put into this challenging and complex area of medicine.



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