From: Dr. Chun Wong
Everyone has heard of stem cell research and how some scientists believe that stem cells can be used to treat, cure or fix certain diseases and conditions like cancer and cerebral palsy, but now stem cell therapy is also being linked to developmental disorders like autism.
But what are stem cells?
Stem cells are cells that are found in most multi-cellular organisms and they are characterized by their ability to self-renew through a process called “mitotic cell division” and the way that they can differentiate into a wide range of specialized cell types in the body.
There are three types of stem cells:
- Adult stem cells – These cells are also known as somatic stem cells or germatic stem cells and are found in adults and children. Adult stem cells have been used in research for many years and are used to treat bone and blood cancers like leukemia, through bone marrow transplants, and are also used to treat ligament and tendon injuries in horses. Adult stem cells can actually be obtained from the recipient themselves, via autograft, so this obviously reduces the risk of rejection and is not fraught with the ethics and controversies of using embryonic stem cells.
- Embryonic stem cells – Embryonic stem cells, or ES cells, are cells that are “harvested” from embryos which are at the blastocyst stage (4-5 days after fertilization). ES cells are “pluripotent” meaning that they can differentiate into all of the types of cells in the body, whereas adult stem cells can only form a limited number. The use of embryonic stem cells is controversial because taking the cells destroys the embryo
- Cord blood stem cells – These stem cells are found in umbilical cord blood and are known as “cord-blood-derived embryonic-like stem cells” or CBEs. Scientific research has shown that these stem cells have the advantages of embryonic stem cells (they are more versatile than adult stem cells) without the disadvantage of having to destroy an embryo. Cord blood stem cells can be saved at birth, stored and even multiplied without any harm to the baby or mother. With cord blood stem cell “banks” becoming more popular, it will mean that it will be easier to find tissue matches for patients needing stem cell treatment.
That sounds complicated doesn’t it? Well, to put it more simply, stem cells are the building blocks of our body. In an embryo (at blastocyst stage), they are like tiny blank slates, meaning that they can change into any cell, tissue or organ of the human body. These little, but powerful cells get busy creating all the parts of the body that the developing fetus will need. In us adults, they are our repair kits of toolboxes, regenerating cells which have been damaged by daily wear and tear, injury or disease.
The Medical Use of Stem Cells
Due to their amazing powers and capabilities, known in the medical world as “plasticity” or “transdifferentiation”, stem cells are being used to treat many different types of diseases and are also being used in research.
As I have already said, some stem cell treatment, such as bone marrow transplants, is already commonplace and taken for granted, but now there are all kinds of stem cell research programs going on around the world. Scientists are examining whether stem cells can be used to treat other types of cancer and diseases, whether they can be used to treat damage to the spinal cord and nervous system, and whether they have a role in treating developmental disorders like autism. Just imagine how this therapy could turn back the clock for people – Alzheimer’s sufferers could get their memory back, a paralysed person could have their spinal cord repaired and be able to walk again, a burns victim could get new skin…Wow!
Autism and Stem Cells
But what is the link between stem cell treatment and stem cells?
Well, scientists like Dr Leonard Smith (a gastrointestinal, vascular and general surgeon) and his team of researchers believe that autism is characterized by:-
- Hypoperfusion – A reduction in the amount of oxygen supplied to the brain. A reduced oxygen supply causes damage to the tissue of the brain and means that the brain can no longer function properly.
- Immune Dysregulation – Abnormal immune responses. The child’s immune system does not function properly and does not respond appropriately to the stimulation it receives. Children with autism can suffer with autoimmune responses, chronic inflammation in the brain and gut (leading to all manner of gastrointestinal problems) and suppressed immune systems.
Dr Smith and his colleagues have identified two types of stem cells which they believe are effective in addressing these two characteristics of autism:-
- CD34+ cord blood stem cells – Dr Smith’s colleague Dr Fabio Solano injected this type of stem cell into a patient to improve blood flow to the brain and therefore increasing the brain’s oxyegn supply.
- Mesenchymal stem cells (MSC) – This stem cell has been used in the past to treat immune dysregulation in Crohn’s Disease sufferers and was used by the research team to treat inflammation in autistic children.
You can read their research and findings at http://www.translational-medicine.com/content/5/1/30#IDABE20Y
Watch the video above to see how a little girl’s autism was successfully treated by adult stem cells given to her by Dr Fabio Solano.
But is stem cell therapy a cure for autism and is it even a viable treatment?