Mention the phrase ‘stem cells’, and many may find their memories momentarily transported back to days spent in their school’s science lab, peering at organism and cell charts in psychedelic shapes and sizes. While these biological cells have long had a place in textbooks for their self-renewal and potency properties, it is a treatment method utilising stem cells that has been making waves across international scientific and medical communities in recent decades—and not always for good reasons.
Ever since the first successful bone marrow transplant containing somatic stem cells was performed on a pair of siblings in 1968, stem cell therapy has been subjected to highly significant research focus worldwide for its potential to treat a broad variety of diseases. As much as it has been hailed as a medical breakthrough, however, it has also received much criticism from opposing circles along the way. It doesn’t help either that in this age of speedy information, many myths and misconceptions on stem cell therapy float about on the Internet. So, what’s all the fuss really about?
Stem cell therapy 101
Stem cells refer to a class of cells in the human body that have the unique ability to divide and multiply continuously throughout a person’s lifetime. This means that stem cells can develop into cell types from other parts of the body like the brain, blood, heart, muscles and bones among others. The stem cell family comprises two main types: embryonic stem cells and adult stem cells.
Enter the concept of stem cell therapy, which attempts to tap into the stem cells’ self-regenerating ability by injecting them into damaged or defective tissue as a means of treating injuries along with genetic and degenerative diseases. This has in turn paved the way for intensive research and possibilities in areas such as leukaemia, brain damage, cancer, blood cell formation, blindness, deafness, diabetes and spinal cord damage to name just a few.
Within the last three decades, there has been a noteworthy increase in the number of stem cell research clinics and stem cell banks all across the world, including Malaysia. Thanks to their ability to repair tissue damage, stem cell therapy research is widely considered to play a crucial role in changing the way we understand and treat diseases. And the more word of its potential to create medical breakthroughs spreads, the more patients flock to such clinics and banks in hopes of finding a cure for their ailments.
Making headlines around the world
Reports from scientific circles appear promising, especially in cases like this one from 2003, when a team of Korean researchers injected adult stem cells from umbilical cord blood into a damaged spinal cord. Prior to that, the patient had been unable to stand up by herself for more than 19 years. Following her treatment, she found herself able to walk independently and without any difficulty or side effects. It is stories like these that provide both researchers and patients with continued belief in the credibility of stem cell therapy.
In Malaysia, one of the top stem cell banks and research facilities is CryoCord in Cyberjaya. CryoCord offers clients the option of storing Hematopoietic Stem Cells (HSC or cord blood from the umbilical cord) or non-hematopoietic stem cells called Mesenchymal Stem Cells (MSC or stem cells taken directly from the umbilical cord) as a possible means of future treatment in the event of blood disorders, injuries or diseases.
“The response to stem cell therapy here has been very positive. As people become more educated about the treatment, we see rising interest from them every year,” a CryoCord representative shared. “We also have customers who come all the way from the United States, Europe, Indonesia and China. Some of them like the Americans and Europeans come here because the medical regulations in their native country provide them with limited options. Others find the medical procedure in Malaysia to be more transparent—they know exactly what to expect and receive from the treatments here.”
Over in Kuala Lumpur, StemLife Berhad also acts as a fellow pioneer of stem cell therapy within the country. Their mission is to promote regenerative medicine using stem cell technology to establish stem cell therapy as one of the three pillars of healthcare management in Malaysia and the region. “To date, we have successfully assisted 13 clients in using their own cord blood cells to treat various disorders. We have also released over 380 units of autologous adult stem cells for use in cartilage injuries due to sports injuries and for diabetic foot ulcers.”
Why all the controversy?
On paper at least, the tentative advances and technologies involved in stem cell therapy offer a bright treatment alternative. So why is there a consistent vocal outcry against it from certain communities?
Part of it has to do with the fact that science is often a long and difficult process, which means that much of the medical potential that stem cell therapy offers is perpetually undergoing research and clinical trials. In other words, its effectiveness in certain areas still lacks absolute scientific confirmation. Some researchers point to the tissue-specific nature and function of stem cells. For example, the hematopoietic stem cells in the bone marrow regenerate the blood, while neural stem cells in the brain create brain cells. If switched, neural stem cells can’t make blood cells and hematopoietic stem cells can’t create brain cells. As a result, there is still an ongoing debate about whether a single cell type can be utilised to effectively treat diseases involving tissue from different parts of the body.
Apart from this, the largest point of contention with stem cell therapy lies in moral and ethical concerns, particularly regarding the creation and subsequent destruction of human embryos in relation to research on embryonic stem cells and in more recent cases, the use of animal stem cells. Pro-life supporters argue that it would be much beneficial for both researchers and patients if more focus and funding were accorded to adult stem cells instead.
“The source of stem cells is very important,” CryoCord emphasises. “If you’re talking about embryonic or foetus stem cells, those will always involve ethical issues and medical risks. ‘How do you justify killing lives to save lives?’ is a commonly asked question. But here in Malaysia, we only use adult or mature stem cells for treatment.”
To add to the hullabaloo, the uninhibited flow of information on the Internet has led to the inevitable circulation of misconceptions and inaccurate facts surrounding stem cell therapy—and in more extreme cases, scams by opportunists looking to make a quick buck. In such cases, stem cell therapy is falsely marketed as a ‘miracle cure’. “The term ‘stem cell’ is so widely used by companies, which creates a lot of confusion,” says CryoCord. “At the end of the day, stem cell therapy, although promising, is not a miracle drug. We follow a very strict protocol in terms of stem cell testing as well as patient screening and processing.”
“These cases serve to highlight the risks of non-certified cell processing facilities and unqualified people administering unapproved manipulated stem cells to patients,” adds StemLife. “We urge the public to be very cautious about xenotransplants (administering stem cells derived from animals) or any cells sold in bottles. The Malaysian standards and guidelines are clear on licensed versus unlicensed facilities and approved evidence-based services. Therefore, enforcement needs to be at par with these guidelines.”
What lies ahead
Every year, scientists continue to report new advances in stem cell research and their increasing potential to treat a wide-ranging variety of medical cases. Consider the case of American football quarterback Peyton Manning, who successfully underwent stem cell therapy in Europe after suffering a potentially career-ending neck injury. Doctors used Manning’s own fat cells to regenerate the nerves in his neck. Today, the NFL quarterback is back on the field and performing better than ever.
On a global front, clinical trials and research continue in many countries for autism, diabetes, cancer and more. Ideally, the hope shared among these research groups is that stem cell therapy will someday be able to fully treat such serious diseases, save lives, ease suffering and improve the quality of life among patients.
“We envision that over the next decade, cord blood and adult stem cell banking will become a must-do not only for those who chose private centres but also for those in public centres,” says StemLife. “We also look forward to a time when forward-looking physicians combine the regenerative properties of stem cells with new medicines to treat patients with conditions other than blood disorders.”
CryoCord shares similar hopes for the future as they venture into exploring new technologies and new sources of stem cells. “We are also looking at extracting stem cells from teeth. Hopefully, in the future we will be able to extract it from the hair or skin, thus enabling us to provide a wider variety of treatment options.”
Did you know?
• In March 2009, President Barack Obama lifted a ban on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research in the United States previously signed by his predecessor, George W. Bush.
• Embryonic stem cells are derived from eggs fertilised in the laboratory and not from a woman’s body.
• In May 2013, scientists from the Oregon Health and Science University and the Oregon National Primate Research Centre successfully made human stem cells with the same cloning technique used to create Dolly, the world’s fi rst cloned sheep.
Suite 1-1, Bio-X Centre,
Persiaran Cyberpoint Selatan,
Cyber 8, Cyberjaya
Various locations including
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Tel: 03–2163 8800