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

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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."

Craig tells WebMD, "I agree with the CCFA. Believe me, a patient has to convince me that this is the absolute right thing for him or her." He says that he worries "about the possibility that I will lose a patient to this therapy."

The type of caution expressed by Craig is well placed, says Richard MacDermott, MD, head of gastroenterology and immunology at Albany Medical College in New York. "This is obviously a truly investigational procedure at the very beginning of the investigational ladder. It has a long, long way to go," MacDermott tells WebMD.

"I don't personally know the [rate of sickness and death] associated with stem cell transplant, but it has got to be significant," says MacDermott, who is a trustee of the Crohn's and Colitis Foundation of America.

Burt says the procedure "wasn't done in a cavalier or relaxed manner -- the procedure was approved by the FDA." He says, too, that the chemotherapy used in his stem cell protocol is not as toxic as earlier stem cell transplant experiments. "The only complication that we had was a two-day fever," says Burt, who adds that tests done during that two-day period turned up no evidence of infection.

From her perspective, Weiss says she underwent two cycles of chemotherapy and neither was "as bad as my worst days with Crohn's." She says that she started feeling better "almost right away. All the pain didn't leave but it started getting better right away. This is the first time I have had a Crohn's remission in 11 years."

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