While most popular discussion has centered around the disease-curing potential of embryonic stem cells and induced pluripotent stem cells, small-scale experiments are beginning to show the power of very simple, inexpensive and non-invasive techniques using a patient’s own (autologous) adult stem cells to clear up formerly intractable disease conditions. I briefly describe two examples of preliminary but promising applications here.
The first application involves clearing up Scleradactyly, a condition featuring chronic fingertip or toetip hardening and often accompanied by lack of circulation and painful infections. Scleradactyly often occurs in people with auto-immune disorders, particularly with scleroderma, CREST syndrome and mixed connective tissue disease. Up until now, there has been no known way to clear it up. Dr. Vincent Falanga, working at the Roger Williams Medical Center, in Providence, Rhode Island has developed a procedure that uses mesenchymal stem cells derived from a patient’s bone marrow. “ The cells are cultured ex vivo and their numbers are expanded greatly. A solution of the stem cells and fibrinogen is placed in 1 chamber of a double-chambered syringe, and the second chamber is filled with a solution of dilute thrombin. “The 2 solutions combine when ejected from the syringe as a spray over the wound. The mix begins to polymerize, and that “clotting” helps to hold the stem cells in place in the wound. The wound is then covered with 2-layer bioengineered skin, containing a layer of keratinocytes and a layer of fibroblasts(ref).” Except for extracting the cells from bone marrow, there is nothing invasive about the procedure. “This proof-of-concept procedure has been applied to 9 patients with nonhealing ulcers without scleroderma and to 3 patients with nonhealing wounds related to scleroderma. After 6 months of follow-up, 4 patients healed completely and the others improved significantly, “with improved quality of life.” Dr. Falanga is following up with additional patients and is refining his technique.
The second application is cure of blindness caused by corneal disease. (Thanks to blog participant Brian Hart who put me onto this one via a comment.) The technique again seems ridiculously simple for the amazing results achieved. Work so far in Australia has been only with three patients that were blind in one eye with one healthy eye. The process is very simple. “The researchers extracted stem cells from the working eye, cultured them in contact lenses for 10 days, and gave them to the patients to wear. Within 10 to 14 days of use, the stem cells began recolonizing and repairing the cornea(ref).” Apparently, the stem cells migrate readily into the cornea. Of the three patients, two were legally blind but can now read the big letters on an eye chart, while the third, who could previously read the top few rows of the chart, is now able to pass the vision test for a driver’s license.” The procedure can most likely be used to repair a variety of forms of corneal damage due to infections, burns or chemotherapy. See this web site for a short video on the process.
I think simple autologous stem cell therapies like these will proliferate and soon become part of mainstream medicine significantly contributing to health. As to their contribution to extraordinary longevity, however, effectiveness of these techniques depends on a supply in the body of healthy adult stem cells and the techniques will not work without them. In the recent post More research insight on gray hair and adult stem cell reproduction, for example, I cited research indicating that gray hair was ultimately due to depletion of melanocyte stem-cells(MSCs) which in turn is the result of DNA damage. Other approaches must be used to assure continuing active supplies of adult stem cells, such as taking antioxidants and telomerase activation. In the longer run, induced pluripotent stem cells might be induced to differentiate in a controlled manner into specific lines of adult stem cells. See the discussion for the Decline is Stem Cell Differentiation theory of aging.