When stem cell therapies emerged in their first form – bone marrow transplants – no one had a problem with it. It was a natural resource from another live human. It didn’t compromise the health of the donor, and often, it saved the recipient’s life from illnesses like leukemia and lymphoma. Bone marrow has a natural concentration of stem cells, which is what allows it to help a sick body generate new, healthy blood cells. So, naturally, once the medical world learned this, they wondered what else stem cells had to offer, and in what other forms it might be used to treat various ailments.
This is where the public started to get nervous; mostly because of the research that included embryonic stem cells. We’re not here to debate whether the use of embryonic stem cells in research and medicine is ethical or unethical; at this point in stem cell research and treatment, it’s not really relevant anymore. Instead, let’s look at some common misconceptions about stem cell therapy that may shed some light on why it’s so important that research on stem cell therapies continue, proliferate, and thrive.
Misconception #1: Stem cells can only be sourced from human embryos.
Truth: This notion is, simply put, false. Stem cells can be sourced from a number of places. Adult stem cells used in regenerative medicine often come from the patient themselves or other biocompatible animal sources, none of which are harmful to the donor. Stem cells are found everywhere in the body: bone marrow, adipose fat, organs, muscles, and even other sources. They can also be found in amniotic fluid, and sometimes are sourced from umbilical tissue from healthy, live births voluntarily donated by mothers.
Misconception #2: There’s only one type of stem cell.
Truth: There are actually a bunch of different types of stem cells, because the special thing about stem cells is that they can differentiate. That means that, while a stem cell may start out in a general form, the body provides what’s called a “signaling mechanism” that tells the cell to differentiate as it replicates. That means that an injection of stem cells at the site of an injury can differentiate into muscle cells, ligament cells, etc. It used to be thought that only embryonic stem cells could differentiate, but that’s not true. Adult stem cells can differentiate, and medical researchers have also developed a method to genetically alter adult stem cells to act like embryonic stem cells. Why? Because embryonic stem cells do have the best potential for differentiation. This ability to genetically alter adult stem cells for therapy was a huge breakthrough in stem cell treatment research because it gives the stem cell all of the abilities of an embryonic stem cell with none of the ethical sourcing concerns.
Misconception #3: Stem cell treatments and research are illegal.
Truth: Nope. Research on stem cell treatments is heavily regulated, and most uses are still in clinical trials (read: not yet FDA-approved), but research on stem cells and administering stem cell therapies are completely legal and above-board.
Misconception #4: The ultimate purpose of stem cell research is to achieve human cloning.
Truth: This misconception emerged along with the frenzy of ethical concerns that came with sourcing stem cells from embryos. It also, understandably, came along with the creation of Dolly, the cloned sheep. The cloning of stem cells is still allowed for therapeutic research, where adult stem cells are sourced, studied and altered to explore treatment possibilities for degenerative conditions like multiple sclerosis. However, the cloning of an actual human embryo is illegal in most every country.
Misconception #5: Your body might reject a stem cell treatment.
Truth: Because the stem cells used for treatment are sourced from the patient or a biocompatible source, there is virtually no risk of an immune response (read: rejection) following a stem cell treatment. Stem cells from placenta and cord tissue are considered “immune privileged” and are more likely to settle your immune system than provoke it. The worst adverse possibility of a stem cell injection is that it might not take or do what you are hoping. Compared to other treatments like surgeries or pain management programs, stem cell treatments are infinitely safer, both short term and long term.
Keeping an Open Mind About Stem Cell Treatments and Research
So, as you can see, there’s a lot more to stem cell research than there at first seems. Stem cells are legal, can be sourced from many things other than embryos, and have great potential to change the face of treatments for a number of cancers, degenerative conditions, and other ailments like torn tendons, bad knees, and back pain. Regenerative medicine is the high-tech future of holistic, natural, and comprehensive medicine, and stem cells are going to play a big part in that future.