How Stem Cell Therapy Works

Published on: 22/05/2023

Stem cell therapy may not be all that it seems. Whether it's good or bad, we must be vigilant about finding out more about novel medical treatments, as this could mean the difference between life and death.

What would happen if, after illness, we could simply repair or regrow our diseased body? 

This is the crux of a certain form of regenerative medicine, a branch of research and clinical practice that involves the use of stem cells to treat illness. Stem cells can be thought of as “mother cells,” from which all the cells in our bodies are derived. They have the ability to turn or “differentiate” into different kinds of cell types: muscle cells, nerve cells, and the like. Thanks to advancements made in technology and medicine, the ability to harvest, grow, and use these cells for the treatment of various forms of illness is becoming more and more feasible—this type of treatment is called stem cell therapy. 

Actually, it would be disingenuous to describe stem cell therapy as this novel and unknown treatment when, in reality, stem cell therapy is routinely done in cases of cancers of the blood (leukemia) and bone marrow dysfunctions as bone marrow transplants. In addition to this, skin grafts with stem cells have been used since the 1980s to repair large burn injuries. By differentiating into specific cell types that the body requires in a particular area, stem cells accomplish this. In essence, they replace missing or dysfunctional cells and replicate themselves. Aside from this reparative function, they also have “paracrine effects,” meaning that these exogenous (from outside the body) stem cells can influence surrounding host cells to function better. 

Despite these cases where stem cell therapy is routinely done, there are many research gaps that are promising. Stem cells can help treat so much more, whether directly or indirectly. Indirectly, stem cells can also be used to create specific cell types and cell lines for use in research. This can be used to understand the body better or help in developing drugs for the treatment of diseases. Directly, there is much interest in the use of direct stem cell inoculation for the treatment of diabetes, spinal cord injury, heart attacks, and macular degeneration, with many more conditions in the research pipeline. 

While the research into stem cell therapy does look promising, and there are many institutions around the world working around the clock to develop better treatments, there are many challenges in the field. In particular, the safety and efficacy of many novel stem cell therapies do not meet standards imposed by medical and research institutions. The complex nature of stem cells themselves and the plethora of possible interactions following their administration in a patient lead to a cascade of “what ifs” that need to be addressed. Many of the new stem cell therapies available now are actually only in experimental stages, but in some places, like Europe, where regulations might not be very strict, these unevaluated treatments are passed off as foolproof. Other considerations, including the possibility of tumor formation and immunological rejection by patients, present specific research hurdles that the field as a whole must face in order to ensure that stem cell therapies do more good than harm. 

In the Philippines, stem cell therapy is slowly becoming more and more available to the general public. As of 2016, in order to administer these treatments, only DOH-accredited organizations with FDA-approved procedures may do so. Hospitals such as Makati Medical Center, Perpetual Help Medical Center, St. Luke’s Medical Center, Asian Hospital and Medical Center, and The Medical City offer such procedures to their patients. Additionally, one of the foremost cord blood banks in Asia, StemCord, recently expanded to the Philippines, allowing for easier access to more samples of hematopoietic stem cells for the treatment of leukemia. Though it should be noted that almost all of these hospitals and institutions are private and located within Metro Manila, this presents an incredibly high barrier to access for many Filipinos. Considering this and the privatized nature of our healthcare system, there is much work to be done on the side of public health in order to ensure that novel medical treatments can cure the common Filipino. 

While stem cell therapy presents a promising and exciting future for medicine, offering solutions to diseases through repair, there are many issues that it will need to overcome in order to become truly viable, especially here in the Philippines. Aside from the challenges of the field as a whole, like ensuring efficacy and safety across all types of stem cell treatments, the issues surrounding its access must also be dealt with in the Philippine context.