Cancer is a complex disease; there are so many unknowns about different causes, the best treatments, and possible cures. There are many different types of cancer and each type requires a specialized approach to therapy. Although early detection and research have improved results in some types of cancers, there is much to be learned. In particular, there has been recent, promising research in the field of stem cell transplants and stem cell therapy.
Standard treatment and challenges
Doctors have traditionally used surgery, chemotherapy, and radiotherapy as the first line of defense when treating cancer. These approaches have drawbacks, though, including side effects, and resistance to drugs and some therapies. Metastatic cancer cells are particularly resistant to these traditional treatments, so cancer that has spread is very hard to treat.
Cancer cells also have their own form of stem cells – the engine that fuels and spreads the reproduction of cancer. These cells have the ability to replicate very quickly and to avoid destruction by the immune system, making treatment that much more difficult.
Because of these shortcomings in treatment and challenges posed by the disease, researchers are looking at other more effective and less toxic therapies including stem cell transplants and treatment.
The first use of stem cells in blood cancers
Physicians have used stem cell transplants to treat certain types of blood cancers for many years. The transplants restore important healthy cells that have been killed during the battle against cancerous cells.
In addition to killing cancerous cells, chemotherapy or radiation can destroy critically important stem cells in the bone marrow, whose job it is to create new blood cells.
Transplants using previously harvested autologous (from the patient) hematopoietic (immature blood cell) stem cells or stem cells from donors (allogeneic) help restore blood cell production in the bone marrow.
These stem cell transplants have been successful in treating many patients with certain types of blood cancers such as leukemia and myeloma.
Stem cell therapy in other types of cancers
Scientists are researching ways to use other types of stem cells in cancer treatments, too. The idea is to use unique features of stem cells to bring the fight to the cancer cell. These stem cells can be engineered to carry killer viruses or other cancer-fighting substances. And scientists hope to utilize the tendency of some of these cells to migrate to cancer cells. This is called “tumor-homing.”
Types of engineered stem cells
There are different types of stem cells. Here are some that are used for fighting cancer:
- Hematopoietic stem cells (HSCs), are harvested from bone marrow. These cells mature into different types of blood cells. Scientists and physician have used HSCs to treat certain blood cancers for decades.
- Mesenchymal stem cells (MSC) are harvested from bone marrow or adipose fat. They morph into many types of tissue including cartilage, tendon, and bone. Scientists have been able to grow MSCs in the laboratory and use them to treat different types of cancer
- Neural stem cells (NSCs) multiply to become specific types of nerve cells. These types of stem cells have been used to treat breast, brain, prostate, and lung tumors.
Scientists can also engineer NSCs and MSCs to deliver anti-cancer substances or mechanisms to the tumors.
Delivery of stem cells to the cancerous tumor can be challenging, particularly in brain cancer – injections are challenging and sometimes, dangerous. Scientists have developed nasal sprays that have met with some success in preclinical research.
Stem cells have the ability to replicate freely and to override immune response. Because of this, stem cells must be used with caution and precision to avoid tumor growth and spread.
There is much work to be done in advancing the research and application of cancer fighting stem cell therapies: It is one of the most promising therapies being researched today.
If you have questions about cancer and stem cell therapies, call us to learn more. Call National Stem Cell Centers in the New York office at (646) 448-0427, or our Long Island office at (516) 403-1457 to discuss a treatment option that is right for you.