WebMD Health News
Louise Chang, MD
Feb. 26, 2008 -- Adult stem cells harvested from either blood or bone marrow
hold promise for the treatment of a wide range of autoimmune diseases and heart disease, a research review
Since the late 1990s, adult stem cell therapy has been used experimentally
to treat multiple sclerosis (MS), type 1 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, and
several other diseases of the immune system, as well as heart disease.
Northwestern University researcher Richard Burt, MD, and colleagues
summarize results from roughly 60 of these studies involving about 2,400
patients in a review published in tomorrow's edition of The Journal of the
American Medical Association.
Burt pioneered the research on adult stem cells for the treatment of
autoimmune disease. He tells WebMD that the potential uses for stem cell
therapy are only now beginning to be understood.
"Traditional medicine is about three approaches -- drugs, surgery, and
radiotherapy," he says. "Stem cell therapy represents a fourth arm of
treatment that in some cases will be combined with other treatments and in
other cases will stand alone. We are seeing the tip of the iceberg right
Barry Goudy, 48, and Tom Van Lieshout, 76, are both believers. Both are
Goudy had battled multiple sclerosis for eight years before having a
transplant of stem cells taken from his own blood five years ago this
"I played hockey and racquetball and had always been very athletic, but
I just couldn't do it anymore," he says. "I got to the point where I
couldn't walk up the stairs without dragging my leg."
Goudy spent a month in the hospital, including five days of chemotherapy to
knock out his immune system. But he tells WebMD he has been free of MS symptoms
He says he's now playing hockey and racquetball again, and is "living my
"I've had five good years that I wouldn't have had," the Detroit
automobile sales representative says.
Tom Van Lieshout was facing the amputation of his right leg due to
circulation complications from diabetes when he had a stem cell transplant in
He says he was in such excruciating pain before having the treatment
that he could only walk 50 to 100 yards at a time.
"When I went into the hospital I walked from the parking ramp to the
entrance, which was a couple hundred yards, and I had to stop three times,"
he tells WebMD. "Just a few days after [the transplant] I was able to walk
three blocks to the drugstore and back."
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.
SOURCES:Burt, R.K. The Journal of the American Medical Association, Feb. 27,
2008; vol 299: pp 925-936.Richard K. Burt, MD, division of immunotherapy, department of medicine,
Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, Chicago.Stanton L. Gerson, MD, director, Ireland Cancer Center, University Hospitals
Case Medical Center; director, National Center for Regenerative Medicine, Case
Western Reserve University, Cleveland.Patricia O'Looney, PhD, vice president of biomedical research, National MS
Society.Barry Goudy, MS patient, Detroit.Tom Van Lieshout, diabetes patient, Bradenton, Fla.
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