Stem cell transplants are becoming more effective for people with certain types of cancer. While stem cell research is in its early stages and is still quite expensive, tens of thousands of people have volunteered for clinical trials or have paid for this revolutionary method to treat their cancer.
What Is a Stem Cell Transplant?
Stem cells are located in a person’s bone marrow, umbilical cord, or blood (peripheral blood stem cells). Stem cells are collected from each source differently. Cells are collected from the umbilical cord after a baby is born, from bone marrow in the pelvic bones via surgery, and from blood cells intravenously after the donor or patient has first taken Neupogen, a drug that stimulates bone marrow to produce more white blood cells.
The stem cells that doctors target from all or one of those sources for a transplant are referred to as hematopoietic type of stem cells, and they can be collected from a matching donor for allogenic transplants or from the patient’s own body for autologous transplants. A syngeneic transplant, a form of allogenic transplant, can be performed if a cancer patient has an identical twin or triplet.
Research scientists and doctors are excited about hematopoietic stem cells because of their ability to form oxygen rich red blood cells, coagulating platelets, and immune enriched white blood cells. Doctors have used autologous stem cell transplants to treat types of leukemia, testicular cancer, multiple myeloma (cancer that affects plasma cells), lymphoma, and neuroblastoma (cancer that affects nerve cells).
Allogeneic stem cells have been used to treat multiple myeloma, forms of leukemia, lymphoma, and myelodysplastic syndrome (bone marrow cancer). Successfully transplanted stem cells possess the ability to accelerate new bone marrow growth, suppress malignant cancer cells, and lessen the possibility of a cancer recurrence.
Before a cancer patient receives a stem cell transplant, they will have intensive chemotherapy and radiation treatments to eliminate as many malignant cancer cells as possible. Once this first stage is complete, the patient will receive the healthy stem cells intravenously.
The new stem cells advance to the bone marrow and start to make healthy new blood cells. Many patients receive red blood cell and platelets transfusions to augment the stem cell transplant. Allogenic stem cell recipients may also be prescribed medications or antibiotics to reduce the risk of “graft-versus-host-disease" (GVHD), a complication that causes the new stem cells to attack a patient’s tissues. A stem cell transplant is not a miracle fix that eliminates cancer from a recipient’s body overnight; recovery takes months of following a well-planned regimen and a team of doctors and specialists who carefully monitor the recovery process.
Candidates for Stem Cell Transplants
The stem cell transplant process is significantly more intense than chemotherapy and radiation treatments, so doctors prefer to restrict the process to patients 65 and under. Also, stem cell transplants are rarely used to treat breast cancer patients since the procedure has not produced better results than standard chemotherapy or radiation treatments.
With that said, as with any medical procedure of this magnitude, the risks are just a high as the benefits; however, for a person who has been diagnosed with a terminal cancer, the benefit always outweighs the risk. The excitement over the ability to use stem cells to treat specific types of cancer is contagious in that it is has proven to be a scientifically advanced, lifesaving measure that improves the lives of cancer patients.