Louis A. Cona M.D.
An in-depth description of mesenchymal stem cells and what makes them so valuable.
There are many different types of stem cells and stem cell therapies. Mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs), or stromal stem cells, have the ability to differentiate into a many different type of cells within the body, including bone cells, cartilage, muscle cells, and even neural cells. They are largely found in the bone marrow of every person, and remain dormant until called upon to promote healing within the body. They age as we age, and their number and effectiveness decreases over the years. The medical community has known of their existence since the late 19th century, however it has only been with recent advancements that physicians have been able to activate and supplement these cells to treat a variety of conditions.
For years, mesenchymal stem cells were only though to exist with bone marrow, however it has been shown that there are a variety of sources for MSCs, including umbilical cord tissue, body fat, molar teeth, and amniotic fluid. The cells derived from cord tissue, more specifically Wharton’s Jelly, have been found to be the youngest and most primitive MSCs available. With the majority of umbilical cords simply discarded after childbirth, this source is both non-harmful and readily available. The young nature of these cells allows enormous potential for them to transform into whatever type of cell is necessary within the body. Youthful cells also tend to replicate at a faster rate, and MSCs have the ability not only to differentiate into other cell types, but multiply to increase their healing effect on the body. Researchers have also found that a stem cell’s potency is tied to its age, therefore making cord tissue MSCs some of the most capable cells around.
In contrast, treatments that utilize MSCs from a patient’s own fat sample have shown poor or unreliable responses. In general, a stem cell is only as good as its source, and if the cells are sourced from an older individual, no amount of expansion will increase their potency. Stem cell numbers and effectiveness begin to decrease exponentially as we age. Cells from even a person in their twenties are not nearly as high quality as the essentially brand new cells sourced from cord tissue. Although treatment is available with any source for MSCs, patients risk little to no results from using lower quality stem cells.
By sourcing mesenchymal stem cells from donated cord tissue and expanding them to greater numbers, the medical community has created the ability to supplement a person’s stem cell count through transplantation with younger, highly effective cells. MSCs have shown the ability to avoid a negative response from a person’s immune system, allowing the cells to be transplanted in a wide range of people without fear of rejection. These transplants vastly increase the body’s natural healing abilities and have a strong anti-inflammatory and immunosuppressive response. To date, MSCs have been used to treat many autoimmune diseases, with studies conducted on use for Crohn’s disease, Multiple Sclerosis, Lupus, COPD, Parkinson’s, and more.
While MSCs do not provide a cure for these conditions, the premise is allowing the body to heal itself well enough to mitigate the symptoms of the conditions for long periods of time. In many cases, this alone allows for a substantial increase in quality of life for patients. Additionally, very few negative effects have been found, with the main drawback being the need for repetitive treatments to maintain high stem cell numbers in the body. Without repeat treatments, the cells will eventually become used to the point that a patient’s healing ability will return to normal over the course of a few years. However, patient reports have shown the effects of quality treatment lasting approximately 5-10 years.
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