Regenerative Medicine: Stems Cells and How They’re Used

There are numerous websites making claims about regenerative medicine, stem cells, and what they can be used for.

It can be confusing to sort the scientific facts from the medical jargon.

Perhaps one of these applies to you:

  • You have a medical diagnosis and your search results keep showing stem cell therapy.
  • You have a friend or relative expressing opinions about stem cells.
  • You have heard of regenerative medicine and want to know more.
  • You want to understand the medical usage of stem cells.

You need a simple, scientifically-based understanding of stem cells and what they are currently being used for in medicine. 

This article will guide you through understanding regenerative medicine and stem cell therapy.

Stem Cell And Regenerative Medicine – Are They The Same Thing?

No.  Regenerative medicine is a term used for a new style of medical treatment that works at the cellular level within your body.

Stem cell therapy is just one facet of regenerative medicine. 

The goal of regenerative medicine is to utilize the functions within cells to boost your body’s ability to fight illness, treat diseases, and recover from injury on its own.

Regenerative Medicine: What is it?

There are different types of treatment within the sphere of regenerative medicine. Here are some examples:

Plasma-Rich Platelet (PRP) Treatment

Platelets, or red blood cells, are your body’s first line of defense against injury or illness. In PRP treatment, your own blood is drawn and your own platelets are concentrated then returned to your body at the location of illness or injury. These extra platelets may help your body recover quicker.

Bone Marrow Concentrate Therapy

Typically bone marrow is removed from the patient’s hip bone, treated to create a concentrate of your own stem cells, and then injected at the location of injury to give the patient’s body a boost of additional cells to program. This has shown promising results for joint injury or arthritis.

Tissue Grafting

This treatment often involves using your own tissue in the lab to grow new tissues to repair organs or skin at the site of an injury.

Cord Blood Stem Cell Therapy

This therapy uses FDA-approved products created from mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs). The MSCs are harvested from the blood left inside an umbilical cord after a baby is born. These young stem cells are then manipulated in the lab and injected into a patient.

Regenerative medicine is still being widely studied throughout the world, with new therapies, safety regulations, and uses that are constantly evolving.

Stem Cell Therapy: What is it?

It is important to understand what stem cells are in order to fully grasp why stem cell therapy could possibly work on so many different body functions.

Stem cells are the building blocks of your body. When they are first generated, as an embryo, they are called pluripotent.

Pluripotent means that the stem cells have the potential to become any kind of cell your body needs.

Your body uses these stem cells to grow.

Some stem cells divide and produce more stem cells, while the rest get coded, or differentiated, by your body to grow into a specialized cell like bone, heart tissue, or blood cells.

So, how does stem cell therapy work?

Because stem cells are not yet differentiated into a particular type of cell, they can be guided in the lab toward a needed function. Scientists choose the type of stem cell-based on what function is needed.

For example:

  • Mesenchymal stem cells are a type of stem cell that has the potential to differentiate into bone, cartilage, muscle, or fat.
  • Hematopoietic stem cells have the potential to differentiate into the various kinds of red and white blood cells.

One manipulated, these stem cells are injected or given intravenously to a patient to boost those cells and increase their body’s ability to heal or fight illness and disease.

So, Are They The Same Thing?

Not exactly.

Think of regenerative medicine as an umbrella term involving cellular-level medical treatment.

Stem Cell Therapy is one of a few different options within regenerative medicine. It is quite varied in which types of cells it is treating, and also where the stem cells were sourced.

Sources of Stem Cells For Regenerative Medicine?

Researchers have found many useful sources of stem cells. The first two sources in this list are currently being used for regenerative medicine, while the last two are still being studied.

Source 1: Perinatal Stem Cells

Perinatal stem cells are harvested from the structures used during the gestation of a human baby but discarded after birth.

These sources have two benefits:

  1. Perinatal sources are safe for both mother and baby. It’s important to know that parental consent is required to harvest or donate these structures.
  2. They contain pluripotent stem cells, like those in an embryo, so they reproduce more readily and have the potential to be guided into forming any kind of cell.

Umbilical cord blood is currently the most common structure used as a perinatal source.

The FDA controls the research and formulations of products derived from umbilical cord blood in the same way they oversee any other drug formulation and testing.

Many companies now have products on the market formulated from cord blood stem cells that have been designed and approved by the FDA for specific medical applications.

The FDA website maintains a list of approved stem cell and gene therapy products.

Scientists are still researching other sources, and have recently been able to harvest stem cells from the placenta, and amniotic fluid though these are not in common usage yet.

Source 2: Adult Stem Cells

Harvesting stem cells from adult donors, or from the patient, is another common source.

There are two common, safe sources:

  • Bone marrow – usually taken from the patient’s hip
  • Adipose, or fat – removed from the patient by liposuction or surgically

Adult stem cells are healthy useful sources for both mesenchymal stem cells (that make bone, cartilage, muscle, and fat), and hematopoietic stem cells (that make blood cells).

These stem cells will not be as quick to reproduce, and might not be pluripotent. Current research is testing their ability to be guided into other uses.

Source 3: Human Embryonic Stem Cells

Human embryos that are 3-5 days old are another source of stem cells. The embryos are fertilized in a lab and never implanted in a woman’s uterus.

The use of these embryonic stem cells has been controversial in the United States because of the moral implications.

People may oppose either the actual use of a human embryo or the cloning needed to create embryos for lab usage. On the other hand, embryonic stem cells are the most durable and least likely to harbor malfunctions than any other stem cell options.

Embryonic stem cells are not currently being used for regenerative medicine treatments, only for scientific research in certain locations because of legal guidelines.

Source 4: Lab-Grown

Using lab-grown stem cells has been attempted for many years.

In 2017, two separate research groups were able to take regular mature adult cells and return them to the stem cell phase so they could be used for treatments. These tests were done on mice, and the results showed great promise for future sources of stem cells.

How Can Stem Cells Be Used In Regenerative Medicine?

Stem cells can be used as a treatment for numerous medical problems.  These include:

  • Regenerating cells at the site of an injury

Examples: knee pain, shoulder injury, spinal injury

  • Reducing inflammation in joints from injury or disease

Examples: back pain, arthritis

  • Increasing the immune response to a disease or illness

Examples: leukemia, heart disease

  • Regulating autoimmune disorders

Examples: diabetes, graves disease

  • Fighting infections

Examples: bacteria, viruses, protozoa

Stem cells harvested from the adult patient may be used for any healing functions for which the physician has customized a treatment plan.

Uses of stem cells are currently being studied. For example, using stem cells as a treatment for stroke and heart attack patients or using stem cells to diminish and repair knee function in patients with osteoarthritis.

The FDA controls the use of cord blood stem cell products. Products made from cord blood stem cells are regulated by the FDA and may only be used for specifically approved treatments.

Stem cells are also being used in clinical trials for new treatments. These are reported to the FDA, must be approved as an Investigational New Drug Application and monitored.

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