Embryonic Vs. Autologous Stem Cell Therapy: What’s the difference?
It’s time we compare the tissues used in stem cell research and stem cell therapy.
With the majority of the modern media covering the ‘hot’ ethical and legal issues surrounding their use in the laboratory or clinic, much goes unsaid and unexplained about what stem cells do and where they come from. Here we shine the spotlight on vastly different sources of stem cells and why they deserve very different schools of thought.
What are stem cells?
Stem cells are the immature, undifferentiated cells from which our multi-tissue bodies are made and replenished. For all intents and purposes, stem cells are the young apprentices of mature differentiated tissues (e.g. skin, blood, cartilage, bone) and are the precursors to almost all human cells.
Wait, there are ‘adult’ stem cells?
Throughout every day of our lives, adult stem cells are produced to allow old and damaged cells to be replaced. This is a naturally occurring process gifting us the ability to heal and grow. For example, without skin-derived stem cells we would not be able to replace the countless skin cells we lose every hour through friction and abrasion. So far, research groups have successfully isolated adult stem cells from the brain, bone marrow, blood, muscle, skin, lung, pancreas, liver and fat.
Where do medical stem cells come from?
Some stem cell-rich tissues grow more than we would like them to. Our adipose (fat) tissue is a reliable source of stem cells, called mesenchymal stem cells, allowing our bodies to create new fat cells as we indulge in excess amounts of calorie-dense foods. This may be great for our adipose cells, but not ideal for the summer months spent in trunks.
The adipose is therefore one of the best tissue sources for stem cell therapy. Clinicians and patients are more likely to prefer adipose-derived stem cell treatments since this fat tissue is: 1) easy to access and separate; and 2) rarely of much value to a typical patient.
Autologous Stem Cells
The term ‘autologous’ roughly translates to mean ‘from the same organism’. An autologous stem cell transfer (or self-transplant) refers to a procedure which relocates stem cells from within a patient to another location in that same patient.
Since the discovery of ‘adult’ stem cells living in our adult tissues many years ago, these easily accessible cells within patients began to replace the outdated use of embryonic stem cells in many areas of research and medicine. The human body is now known to contain many sources of stem cells which are currently being explored in clinical trials of regenerative medicine.
The stem cells sourced from adipose tissues and, to some extent, bone are called mesenchymal stem cells. The beauty of mesenchymal stem cells, is that these cells can mature into new fat, muscle, bone and cartilage; and potentially even nerve cells.
Umbilical Cord Stem Cells
The cord attached to the human placenta, often cut and discarded following successful delivery of newborn babies, has been identified as an otherwise wasted source of human stem cells. Although, the ‘icky-factor’ is comparable to that of embryonic stem cells and deters most clinics from exploring their use, cord stem cell banks all around the world continue to successfully collect, store and deliver safe and certified cord cells much like a blood bank does with donated blood cells. These cells are predominantly haematopoietic stem cells and can potentially give rise to some or all of the tissue types within an organ.
Embryonic Stem Cells
Embryonic stem cells were once hailed as the beginning of the end of ageing and disease. For years, one of the only known sources of stem cells for research and medicine development was in rapidly maturing embryonic tissue. The ethical, religious and legal considerations in this field of research sparked insurmountable controversy despite the most diligent and diplomatic assembly of regulatory guidelines. Many of these lines of cells were conserved and cultivated and are still used to further medical research today. However, these embryo-derived stem cell lines, once thought to escort the future of medicine, are almost completely stricken from commercial medical use internationally.
Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells
Induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS cells) are the most modern and one of the most exciting breakthroughs in stem cell research to date (according to this scientist, at least). These cells are originally collected as differentiated adult cells (e.g. mature skin cells) and are manipulated using a series of chemical agents to reverse their maturity and restore their ability to differentiate into new and different tissues (that is, revert them into a stem cell-like state).
The recent discovery of successful iPS cell techniques was a tremendous achievement for medical research. However, due to the extensive bench-top manipulations required to create these stem cells, the end results are considered processed medical products and are no longer able to be used as cell transplants. Unlike autologous stem cells, iPS cells require an additional level of regulation by either the FDA (US) or TGA (Aus) in order to be commercially supplied to patients for use in medical treatments. Currently, no iPS cells have obtained these approvals from either authority.
Which stem cells are currently used in regenerative medicine?
All of the stem cell sources discussed above are potentially viable for clinical applications. However, since the discovery of adult stem cells and the refinement of autologous stem cell procedures, adipose-derived stem cells are one of the most commonly used in regenerative medicine globally. Only under certain circumstances, where a patient is unfit to donate their own adipose tissue for autologous transplants (e.g. low body fat, old age etc.), cord cells are considered the next best source for stem cell therapy and regenerative medicine.
Depending on a clinic’s policies, the physician’s preferences and the restrictions of some clinical trial requirements, the sources for stem cell therapies can differ greatly. If you’re contemplating stem cell therapy, always make sure to consult with your physician or clinic representative to make sure that you are comfortable with where your cells are coming from.
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