One of the most widely known uses of stem cells to treat disease is the stem cell procedure used by oncologists to treat leukemia. First approved decades ago, the treatment has saved countless lives across the world. And yet, there is quite a bit of risk that comes with it. Researchers in Germany hope to minimize that risk with a variation of the original treatment.
The Advanced Regenerative Medicine Institute (ARMI), an organization that teaches doctors safe procedures for utilizing PRP and stem cell therapies, is hopeful the German researchers succeed in making stem cell transplants better and safer. They will be keeping an eye on the researchers as they work toward developing a new procedure.
The Risk of Stem Cell Transplants
Leukemia patients undergoing stem cell treatment are generally doing so as a last resort. They undergo chemotherapy and radiation that destroy as many cancer cells as possible. They are followed by a transfusion of blood stem cells taken from a healthy donor. If all goes well, those stem cells perform two functions: they encourage the growth of new stem cells and they attack and destroy other cancer cells still in the patient’s body.
While the strategy has proven quite effective, there is an inherent risk that makes the procedure dangerous. In some cases, the donor cells begin to attack healthy tissue in the recipient’s body. Estimates suggest that between 30% and 60% of patients undergoing the procedure experience complications. Some of them die as a result. Doctors attempt to prevent complications by suppressing the patient’s immune system. But this leads to additional problems.
A Key Cytokine Discovered
In an attempt to understand the lethal response some patients have to stem cell transplants, researchers looked at mouse models. They discovered a particular cytokine that they believe helps fight infection. It is this cytokine they believe triggers the process that causes healthy stem cells to attack otherwise healthy tissue in recipients.
To test their theory, they introduced healthy blood stem cells that had been modified in order to prevent them from producing the cytokine into the mouse subjects. The cells retained their anticancer properties without triggering the lethal response that otherwise would have been expected.
The results were positive enough that researchers decided to see how it might apply to humans. They obtained samples from patients who had experienced complications from a stem cell transplant and, to their surprise, they observed elevated levels of that same cytokine. Researchers are obviously pleased with that discovery.
Developing a Therapy
The next step for the researchers is to develop a workable therapy they can take to trial. When that begins or how long the process will take isn’t clear. However, it seems reasonable that a breakthrough as important as this one would mean as little delay as possible moving forward. Hopefully we will see a therapy ready for testing within the next couple of years.
Future success would obviously be measured by the ability of a new stem cell therapy to retain the same anticancer properties with a much lower risk of lethal response. If researchers could come up with something that also enhances patient immune function at the same time, that would be even better. Enhanced immune function would increase the cancer fighting aspects of the procedure.
To leukemia patients faced with undergoing stem cell transplant, anything that makes the treatment safer is welcome. They are already dealing with a potentially fatal form of cancer. Having to trade the known risks of leukemia with potential risks of treatment really doesn’t give them much of a choice.