Stem cell medicine breakthroughs are frequently in the news now, but the truly important developments can get obscured by hopes of miracle cures and failed trials. One application of stem cells that is often overlooked, however, is the growing use of multipotent stem cells in transplant medicine.
What are multipotent stem cells?
The technical definition of a multipotent stem cell is that it is a cell that can differentiate into one of several distinct types of cells. What this really means is that a multipotent cell is one that has options and hasn’t decided what it is going to become yet.
In the world of cord blood banking, when we speak of multipotent stem cells, we’re typically talking about the hematopoietic stem cells in umbilical cord blood and the mesenchymal stem cells in cord tissue and placental tissue.
For a bit more background, hematopoietic stem cells (or HSCs) can become any of the major components of blood (red blood cells, white blood cells, platelets, etc.) and are the same cells that make bone marrow transplants such a powerful treatment for 80+ serious medical conditions.
Mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs), on the other hand, often attract the most media attention. These stem cells have incredible treatment potential for a wide range of conditions, including cancers, heart conditions, organ failure, and even injuries to joints and tissues!
What are the benefits of transplant medicine?
The most widely known benefit of multipotent stem cell transplantation is the treatment of 80+ serious medical conditions, including leukemias, anemias, and lymphomas, with HSCs. Families around the world are choosing to bank their newborn’s cord blood for this benefit.
But, there are other benefits being explored in advanced clinical trials.
HSCs from bone marrow have been used in a groundbreaking study seeking to limit the risks of organ rejection after a transplant. In the trial, patients who had a liver transplant were given an HSC transplant, and multiple patients no longer need to take the immune-suppressants that are currently necessary to sustain the function of a transplanted organ.
The same principles are also being used to treat certain types of multiple sclerosis. In fact, a leading hematological society has made the practice a standard of care! The known benefits of these powerful stem cells are constantly expanding.
But, HSCs aren’t the only stem cells with promising transplant applications! Numerous studies, dating back to the 1990s, are indicating that the immune-suppressant capabilities of MSCs will also lead them to an expanded role in transplant medicine. As you know, after a transplant, the transplanted organ or cells are frequently attacked by the body.
Yet a corresponding transplant of MSCs, ideally from a related donor, can protect one from rejection – and even reverse severe attacks. And while much of the recent excitement about this application has been around the ability of MSCs to aid in the body’s acceptance of an HSC transplant, a growing body of evidence is showing that these transplants can help protect solid organs – kidneys, liver, etc. – from the body’s natural immune response to a foreign body.
What could this mean for my family?
You can easily bank these stem cells for future use, with less hassle and risk involved than other sources. HSCs are available from bone marrow (which requires both a match and a potentially dangerous, frequently painful invasive procedure) and public cord blood banks (where matches are difficult to find and come paired with a cost frequently in excess of $35,000).
MSCs can be found in the bone marrow and adipose tissue, but multiple recent studies suggest that “younger” MSCS (i.e. those taken from a source like the umbilical cord, not adolescent or adult tissue) are better suited for treatment.
With the constant media coverage of medical advances (and occasional disappointing failures), it can be difficult to determine which practices to believe in. But, with the great strides being made in stem cell medicine and growing applications, like transplant medicine, it’s becoming clearer that stem cells will hold a valuable place in the future of medicine.
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