A material that can turn almost instantly into anything you want sounds like something from science fiction, but in fact it is already a reality — welcome to the world of stem cell treatment.
Stem cells are the human body’s raw material for repairing itself. They can self-renew or turn into a specific type of cell, such as blood or muscle cells, and offer huge potential for treating a range of conditions, from worn-out knees to damaged hearts.
They are not all the same: embryonic stem cells, sourced from human embryos, can become any type of cell in the body; adult stem cells, which are harvested from (your own or donor) bone marrow or fat tissue have more limited use; and a third group called induced pluripotent stem cells are produced by reprogramming normal adult stem cells so they act like embryonic cells.
Ten years ago they were hyped as the golden hope for curing degenerative diseases. Then things appeared to go quiet, but Brendon Noble, a professor of regenerative medicine at the University of Westminster, says that even in the past two years there have been ‘amazing advances’ in stem cell-based therapies.
‘We are standing at the start of a medical revolution that will change the way medicine is practised in a similar way to organ transplantation or antibiotics in the past,’ he told Good Health.
Less welcome is the rise in ‘stem cell tourism’, where desperate patients are travelling abroad to clinics seeking unproven treatments for incurable conditions such as Alzheimer’s, motor neurone disease and autism.
‘Already several terrible outcomes have occurred,’ says Professor Noble.
‘I know of one case in the U.S. where a patient lost their sight after a rogue clinic used stem cells to treat [the eye condition] age-related macular degeneration, and another case where a man treated with stem cells for spinal cord paralysis developed a tumour. There is still so much that is unknown about stem cells. That’s why it is so important that you stick to scientifically proven treatments or join a clinical trial.
‘Nevertheless, we should celebrate how game-changing stem cell treatments really are.’
Already stem cells are being used to help with a plethora of conditions. The UK Stem Cell Foundation currently funds clinical trials to treat multiple sclerosis (MS), sight problems, heart damage, spinal cord injuries, blood cancer and bone and cartilage issues.
Here, five people whose lives have been transformed by stem cell therapy share their stories.Stopped MS in its tracks
Reema Sandhu, 28, an account manager, lives in Bracknell, Berkshire
Reema Sandhu, 28, an account manager, lives in Bracknell, Berkshire, with husband Haps, 32, a marketing manager, and son Kyan, 19 months. Diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS) five years ago, Reema recently had stem cell treatment to halt its progression. She says:
Being told I had MS was a huge shock — I didn’t know what the future held, whether I would be able to work, have a family or if I would be in a wheelchair.
I was diagnosed in November 2015 after burning my face on a lamp — I was unaware I was touching it as my cheek had gone numb. An MRI scan showed I had lesions on my brain and in my spine. A lumbar puncture confirmed MS — where your immune system attacks the protective fatty myelin sheath that surrounds nerves. This is why you feel numb. It caused muscle spasms, stiffness, bladder problems and memory problems. I also had a rash and felt so tired.
Despite being on a high dose of a drug called Tecfidera, which reduces inflammation around the nerves, I was still having burning, numbness and blurred vision, which meant I couldn’t drive.
I was prescribed another drug called Gilenya, but that didn’t work either and I became petrified at the speed new symptoms were appearing. Around 18 months later I had difficulty walking, brain fog and weakness in my right side. Over the next few years I was offered other drugs, but they had side-effects or would have prevented me starting a family.
I’d read about stem cell treatment and my NHS consultant agreed I was a good candidate for it, but my case was rejected by the board that decides which cases to fund on the NHS; I think because I refused to try Lemtrada, a drug that can’t be taken if you are trying for a baby — which I was.
Kyan was born in March 2018 —my application for NHS stem cell transplant was refused again soon after so we decided to pay privately to have the treatment. It cost £70,000, but by using savings, money from family and a GoFundMe website we managed to raise it. The treatment started this January, after a dose of chemo to destroy my faulty immune system. I was given injections to boost stem cell production, and these cells were collected from my blood, processed then infused back intravenously. Immediately my brain fogs improved and I could concentrate better.
By the second month, my vision was back to normal. Since then I’ve been able to go back to the gym, run after my son and even go to work, but I still have some spasticity in my right side. All the signs so far are that stem cells have halted the progression of my MS.
Expert comment: Dr Majid Kazmi, a consultant haematologist at Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust and the private HCA London Bridge Hospital, who treated Reema, says stem cells have the potential to switch off MS. ‘It’s similar to how computers that are malfunctioning sometimes start working if you switch them off and on again,’ he says. ‘These cells have the ability to regenerate the immune system by repopulating the bone marrow — but they won’t regrow nerves.
‘The immune system can take up to a month to fully reboot and during this time the patient is vulnerable to infections and needs anti-viral medication for up to a year.
‘The number of patients with no evidence of disease after three years is 70 to 80 per cent, compared with 50 per cent for the best results achieved by drug treatments.’
Around 250 stem cell treatments have been performed in the UK on MS patients since 2009, most on the NHS. ‘It can mean the difference between walking with a stick and walking without a stick,’ says Dr Kazmi. ‘Stem cell treatment is not a cure for MS because a patient may not revert to where they were before they had the condition.’Repaired my failing heart
Dave Randle, 49, a tour bus driver for rock bands, lives in Willenhall, West Midlands
Dave Randle, 49, a tour bus driver for rock bands, lives in Willenhall, West Midlands, and had stem cell treatment after having a heart attack in March 2016. He says:
My heart attack, at 46, changed my world. Having been fit and active, the heart failure that followed meant I felt so weak I could barely walk upstairs. If I lay flat, fluid would build up in my lungs and I’d struggle to breathe. For several days I had ignored recurrent chest pain, neck pain and clammy skin — putting it down to indigestion. When I saw my GP, he took my blood pressure and told me to go straight to hospital. Within 45 minutes of arriving I was in intensive care.
Because I’d delayed getting help, my heart had been starved of oxygen for some time and had been left severely damaged. The amount of oxygenated blood pumping from my heart around my body — known as the left ventricular ejection fraction — was just 23 per cent (it should be above 55).
I was warned I was in heart failure, meaning my heart was not pumping enough blood and I would have to live with severe fatigue and breathlessness.
I was offered a left ventricular assist device (LVAD), a surgically implanted heart pump, but I refused it because of the risk of infection and stroke. My consultant discharged me,