"Long-lasting stem cells for heart attack, " "Bone marrow cells cure diabetes, " "umbilical cord blood in stroke?" - There have been increasing numbers of press releases on stem cells in recent months. Often the impression is conveyed that their use is the future wonder weapon for combating the most diverse diseases. In gynecological practices, the inquiries of pregnant women, whether it makes sense at the birth of the umbilical cord stem cells of their child win and freeze.
What are stem cells anyway?
Stem cells are basic cells from which the different body cells emerge during the development of the embryo (embryonic stem cells). Even after birth, they are present mainly in the bone marrow, but also in some organs and develop further to progenitor cells, which in turn develop the various blood cells and cells of the immune system (adult stem cells). They multiply by division, keeping their numbers constant.
Stem cells suitable for therapeutic use?
For several years now, research has been done into whether and how the adaptability of stem cells can be used in the treatment of diseases. The basic idea is to make stem cells transform into the specific cells of affected tissues and replace the diseased, non-functioning cells. For a long time, successfully used in practice, the therapy with stem cells in blood cancer. First, the diseased cells are destroyed by radiation or chemotherapy. Subsequently, the stem cells obtained from a bone marrow donation and administered to the patient by syringe primarily migrate into the bone marrow, colonize it and then produce - as they are used to - new, healthy blood and immune cells.
Recent studies continue and also examine the use in diseases that do not affect the blood or immune system. For example, researchers worldwide report encouraging results in animal studies such as diabetes, lung disease, stroke, Parkinson's, Alzheimer's disease, Crohn's disease, muscle disease, multiple sclerosis and heart attack. It has been observed that stem cells not only self-evolve into specific cells, but also stimulate the growth of existing tissue cells. In humans, the successful use, however, has so far only been successful in blood cancer or congenital blood diseases such as sickle cell anemia, thalassemia or Fanconi anemia, studies on other diseases (eg diabetic blindness or heart attack) have started.
How can stem cells be won?
There are currently three sources from which adult stem cells can be obtained:
- from the bone marrow by puncture (eg in the area of the iliac crest).
- from the blood, after the stem cells were medicated to move from the bone marrow.
- from the umbilical cord blood (by puncture of the umbilical cord after birth).
The possibility to remove embryonic stem cells from the embryo shortly after fertilization is banned in Germany by the Embryo Protection Act, but is already being used by researchers in many other countries.
Advantages and disadvantages of stem cells from umbilical cord blood
Unlike other adult stem cells, they have some advantages directly after birth:
- The recovery is painless and completely harmless (for mother and child).
- You can share better.
- They can transform into more different tissues.
- They are usually not or much less burdened with viruses.
- Possibly. When they are injected with other people, they produce less defense reactions.
However, there are also disadvantages:
- The number of cells is less.
- They may transmit an unrecognized familial inherited disease or a bacterial contamination that occurs during birth.
- In the case of leukemia, a defense reaction ("transplant-against-leukemia reaction") is even desired and may not be achieved with umbilical cord stem cells in this form.
Meanwhile, methods are already in the test phase, with which the stem cells can be multiplied with the help of special growth factors.
Should I have umbilical cord blood removed?
The following points and unanswered questions may play a role in deciding on the taking of umbilical cord blood:
- Although the trend has been stormy over the past few years, all new indications and therapies for stem cell use are currently in the research phase, apart from the classic blood cancer treatment.
- In the case of diseases that are already successfully treated with stem cells, it makes no sense to inject their own stem cells, since they are also ill or carry this predisposition.
- There are no long-term studies to ensure that the stored stem cells are functional after 20 years or more. The longest investigation period using the current method (freezing at -195 ° C using liquid nitrogen) is currently 15 years.
- There is a possibility that developments in other areas of medicine over the next few decades will make the use of stem cells superfluous. Hope is safe here in Ghent therapy.
The costs are currently around 1, 500 euros for storage over 20 years; further storage time will be more expensive.
What to do to conserve stem cells?
First contact person is the attending gynecologist. About 4 weeks before the calculated date of birth and 4 months after the birth he has to take the mother's blood. The umbilical cord blood is taken directly after birth in the clinic with a special set and brought by courier in the special laboratory. After examination of the stem cells (and blood separation if necessary) they are stored in liquid nitrogen. Competing companies can get timely information about the offer, the process, the collateral and the costs.