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    First Patient to Get Stem Cell Treatment for Crohn's in Remission

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    The surgeon turned to the Internet, and there he found an article about Burt's proposal to treat Crohn's disease with an experimental procedure that required a stem cell transplant, using cells harvested from the patient's own bone marrow. This type of transplant is used to treat leukemia and other cancers.

    Burt and his co-investigator Robert Craig, MD, had been waiting for about three years for the "right patient for this procedure," says Craig, a professor of medicine at Northwestern University Medical School.

    The pilot study in which Weiss was the first patient will eventually include 10 Crohn's patients who have "failed all other accepted therapies," says Burt. Craig tells WebMD the patients not only "will have failed all other therapies, but they also must convince me that they are willing to take the risks associated with stem cell transplant."

    Stem cell transplant is an experimental procedure that definitely carries its own risks. First, the cells are harvested from the patient's bone marrow, and then the patient is treated with powerful chemotherapy drugs, which are used to destroy the patient's immune system. After the immune system is destroyed, the patient's stem cells are injected back into the body and the patient is kept in a sterile environment for two weeks so that the "new" immune system can develop. During this time, any infection can pose fatal risks.

    Because Crohn's disease is usually not fatal, some researchers are questioning the advisability of treating the disease with such a risky procedure.

    In a statement released Thursday, the Crohn's and Colitis Foundation of America said "We are not certain that the benefits of stem cell transplants in Crohn's disease patients outweigh the risks. ... Scientists have yet to determine whether stem cell transplant can initiate a long-term remission in people with Crohn's disease. In addition, the potential benefits of this therapy must be weighed against the risk of infection. While Crohn's patients have an altered immune system, researchers have not yet determined whether Crohn's can be qualified solely as an autoimmune disease. Until those questions are answered through carefully monitored, long-term clinical studies, stem cell transplant in Crohn's disease patients remains an investigational therapy."

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