Communications Department

Adult Stem Cells—Real Hope for the Future, Real Help for Patients Now

Jan 27, 2011 | 01-January 2011 NRL News

NRL News
Page 26
January 2011
Volume 38
Issue 1

Adult Stem Cells—Real Hope for the Future, Real Help for Patients Now

By David A. Prentice, Ph.D.

Stem cell research. The phrase is loaded with hype, hope, and emotion. Yet most don’t know there are different types of stem cells. Embryonic stem cells grab the headlines. But getting these stem cells relies on the destruction of young human life. And despite over 12 years of promises, embryonic stem cells still have not helped a single patient.

Over the past six months, three experimental trials have been approved in the U.S. that propose using derivatives of embryonic stem cells in cases of new spinal cord injury or blindness. But even many embryonic stem cell scientists believe the dangers of these cells make such trials preliminary; it’s simply using patients for experiments. The fact remains that embryonic stem cells are dangerous—hard to control with a tendency to produce tumors and misplaced tissues.

Adult stem cells, however, are isolated and used without harming the stem cell donor. They can be taken from a host of tissues—bone marrow, muscle, fat, umbilical cord blood—and already have proven success at saving lives and improving health on a daily basis. Over 50,000 people around the globe are treated each year with adult stem cells. The diseases and conditions treated continue to expand, with published success for numerous cancers, spinal cord injury, heart damage, multiple sclerosis, sickle cell anemia, and many others.

Here are just a few examples of adult stem cell successes from the last year.

* Adult stem cells are increasingly used for bone repair. Doctors at Boston Medical Center as well as in the U.K. have used the patient’s own adult stem cells to treat degenerative hip diseases. Rather than a hip replacement, doctors remove dead tissue in the hip, and fill back in with bits of ground up bone and the patient’s own adult stem cells. Doctors in Australia, Canada, and South Korea have found that they can speed healing of bone fractures, including previously non-healing fractures, by addition of some of the patient’s bone marrow adult stem cells into the fracture area. Some patients who had difficulty healing for over a year threw away their crutches a few weeks after the adult stem cell treatment.

Spanish surgeons report that three patients who had craniofacial damage were successfully treated with their own adult stem cells. One patient suffered from nerve impairment, facial bone fracture, and complete wasting of bone, muscle, and skin. Twelve months after treatment, new bone, blood vessels, muscle, and nerve had regrown. The doctor who designed the adult stem cell treatment said that the “outcome of these treatments with the stem cells has surpassed our wildest expectations” and that treatment “ resulted in complete healing.”

* Numerous studies now show that adult stem cells can stimulate repair of damaged heart tissue, including damage from heart attack as well as chronic heart failure. Doctors in Germany published evidence from a large study that patients treated with adult stem cells for chronic heart failure showed a significant improvement in heart function and a significant decrease in long-term mortality, with no side effects. And recently, doctors in Brazil and Florida found that adult stem cells injected directly into the heart could relieve angina.

* Italian doctors reported that they could successfully treat corneal blindness using the patient’s own adult stem cells. They treated 112 patients who had been blinded by chemical burns. Over 77% of patients recovered normal vision. Patients with superficial damage were able to see within one to two months, while more extensive injuries took several months longer to recover. One of the successful transplants was a man who had been blind for 50 years. The doctors grafted stem cells from a small section of his left eye to both eyes. His vision is now close to normal.

* Treatment of multiple sclerosis with adult stem cells has also received a boost. In May, a U.K. team led by Dr. Neil Scolding found that a simple intravenous infusion of the patient’s adult stem cells, without using chemotherapy, could work to improve patient symptoms. The groundbreaking report of the first six patients found that the simple treatment stabilized the patients’ condition and improved their nervous system. The whole procedure, from extracting the bone marrow adult stem cells to re-infusing them into the bloodstream, was accomplished in a few hours at the hospital, and the patients were then followed for one year to observe the benefits.

* Adult stem cells have been used to grow whole new windpipes. The most recent success was for a 10-year-old boy. An Italian-British collaborative team had previously grown complete windpipes in the laboratory for two women. The cartilage from a cadaveric windpipe was coated with the patient’s bone marrow adult stem cells, which grew into the normal tissue for the windpipe. The lab-grown windpipe was then transplanted. In the case of the young boy, the doctors started the procedure in the same way, but transplanted the cell-coated windpipe cartilage directly into the boy’s body, allowing it to regenerate the needed tissue using the “ideal laboratory” of the human body to rebuild the organ. The simplicity of this breakthrough points to the possibility of using a similar technique to regenerate many different organs in the future.

* Scientists have also used donor adult stem cells from bone marrow and umbilical cord blood to successfully treat children with a fatal genetic skin disease called epidermolysis bullosa (EB), that causes skin to blister and scrape off with the slightest friction, and chronic pain; the slightest touch or hug hurts them. All 10 children treated so far have responded positively, easing their conditions. According to the doctors who treated the children, “Bone marrow [adult stem cell] transplantation is one of the riskiest procedures in medicine, yet it is also one of the most successful. Patients who otherwise would have died from their disease can often now be cured. It’s a serious treatment for a serious disease.”

While many adult stem cell treatments are still experimental, the results continue to flow for thousands of patients a year, and new applications are coming. This makes it all the more important that we direct our health care resources toward the proven, ethical, and successful solution—adult stem cells.

For a visual sample, see the three patient videos at

Dr. Prentice is senior fellow for life sciences at the Family Research Council.