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Adult Stem Cells May Treat Many Diseases

Study Suggests Benefits for Patients With Autoimmune Diseases and Heart Disease

Stem Cell Therapy

Much of the attention and all of the controversy surrounding stem cell therapy has focused on embryonic stem cells -- cells harvested four to five days after an embryo is fertilized.

Adult stem cells exist to replace damaged or aging cells, and they are found in tissue throughout the body of adults and in the blood and bone marrow, where cells are much easier to harvest.

Stem cell therapy has been used for many decades to treat leukemia and other cancers, but the treatment-related death rate is high due to the aggressive chemotherapy and/or radiation used to dramatically suppress the immune system and kill cancer cells.

This type of treatment has generally been considered too dangerous for less life-threatening diseases, and in the review by Burt and colleagues the treatment-related death rate was 13% among patients with autoimmune diseases who had the most aggressive, bone-marrow suppressing treatments.

In contrast, the death rate among patients who had a less aggressive treatment known as a non-myeloablative transplant -- or "transplant light" -- was less than 1%.

Twenty-six studies involving 854 patients with various autoimmune diseases were included in the review.

Most of the studies involved patients with MS, who fared best when they were treated with non-myeloablative regimens.

The same thing appears to be true for patients with type 1 diabetes. The less aggressive and dangerous treatment also shows promise for the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn's disease, lupus, and other autoimmune diseases.

Seventeen studies involving just over 1,000 heart attack patients and 16 studies involving just under 500 patients with coronary artery disease suggested a "modest benefit" for the treatment in cardiovascular disease, the researchers conclude.

Many important questions remain about the use of stem cell therapy in non-malignant disease. And only time will tell if patients like Goudy and Lieshout are cured of their diseases.

"We don't yet know what role this therapy will play in the treatment of MS," National MS Society Vice President for Biomedical Research Patricia O'Looney, PhD, tells WebMD. "We just don't have enough data."

Stem cell researcher Stanton L. Gerson, MD, of Case Medical Center's Ireland Cancer Center, says the therapy may hold the key to better treatments or even cures for a wide range of diseases.

"My sense is that this treatment will soon become mainstream for a least some of these diseases," he tells WebMD.

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