Stem Cells and the Aging Brain

Aging is a part and parcel of life, but as our body ages, our brains age too. Just like an aging body can be riddled with diseases and illnesses like arthritis, cataracts, cardiovascular disease and osteoporosis, an aging brain too can be afflicted with sickness. The age-associated diseases that affect the brain are often clustered under the umbrella-term of ‘neurodegeneration’. Diseases like Huntington’s, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s are some of the better known disorders that fall under this terminology.

Let us first understand what the term ‘neurodegeneration’ actually encompasses. The Oxford Dictionary defines neurodegeneration as the “Degeneration of the nervous system, especially of neurons in the brain”. According to the EU Joint Programme – Neurodegenerative Disease Research (JPND), the nervous system of the human body comprises of neurons. In case they suffer damage, they do not possess the ability to repair, replace or reproduce themselves. This inability results in neurodegenerative diseases.

Previously, neurodegenerative diseases were believed to be incurable. However, with the gigantic steps towards advancement that medical science has taken in the recent years, scientists have been able to devise procedures that help in assisting individuals suffering from neurodegenerative disease. Stem cell therapy is among these advanced procedures that have recently shown positive results.

These cells are mother or master cells that have the ability to differentiate into other types of specialized cells through the process of mitosis. They can repair internal tissue damage by developing into a cell with a specialized function like a blood cell or brain cell. They also possess the ability to renew themselves.

Utilizing these type of cells to treat medical disorders and diseases is known as stem cell therapy. Transplantation of stem cells is the most common procedure used in this cell therapy. In cases of brain degeneration, stem cells are transplanted into the patient. These cells then become progenitor cells that work within the brain to maintain the neuron functions. Research has been conducted on animal models for diseases like Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, Parkinson’s, and multiple sclerosis, which have provided optimistic outcomes.

In a symposium organized by EuroStemCell, Magdalena Götz, PhD, Helmholtz Zentrum München, spoke about the radial glial cells which are present in the neural stem cells and described them as “they look like glia, they smell like glia but they are actually the neural stem cells.” She further explained the development of brain cells and the possibility of guiding neural stem cells to locate and repair the injury site inside the brain, while also regenerating neurons.

Stem cell research is the future of neurology. With several clinical studies being conducted year after year, the use of the cells in this therapy in treating neurological disorders is constantly expanding. In India, the guidelines established by the Indian Council for Medical Research (ICMR) for conducting clinical studies have been revolutionised leading to extensive research being done in the field of stem cell therapy.

Secrets of Stem Cells in Multiple Sclerosis Treatment

Multiple Sclerosis is a disorder in which a persons own immune mechanisms attack the nervous system(myelin sheath of the nerve cells is inflamed) and leads to disability, blindness and sometimes even paralysis. This was first identified as a disease as far back as 1860s; nevertheless the exact reason for this disease is still a mystery. There are several factors that are thought to actually contribute to the disease, which changes itself as different symptoms that can show as so minor and are not recognized, and most often they can leave a person fully disabled or dead.

Several people around the globe suffer from this disease, doctors and researchers are in the process of finding out the reason for this disease. But more importance is given in finding out a cure. Recently a treatment called as stem cell therapy, has received a lot of attention from the scientific world.There is a lot of research on stem cells its cure, which are showing amazing results.

Recent technological advancement in stem cell research has shown that it is possible to reverse the symptoms of multiple sclerosis with stem cells replacement. As this is still in the laboratory stage some measure of success has been achieved in independent studies conducted at several independent Universities and Research Centers.

In this therapy, stem cells are introduced into the patient’s body. Stem cells are naive (immature) cells which can be extracted from the placenta. They have the ability to form into many several types of cells like skin, bone, eye cells etc., As these are injected into the body they start secreting a growth factor, and these growth factors form new blood cells in the blood vessels.Which are healthy and active, they replace the diseased cells in the patient. These new cells keep on increasing in number until disease causing cells are completely replaced with the healthy cells. This process is far better than any painful surgery or chemotherapy or radio therapy. Furthermore this treatment is cost effective when compared to other treatments and is safe in all the ways, as the patients own stem cells are used in most of the cases i.e they are removed from the patient’s own bone marrow are then injected back into the blood stream.

One of the drawbacks of this treatment is that this technology is not accessible in all parts of the globe mostly in developed countries. One has to travel any one of these countries for the treatment of multiple sclerosis.

While the results from this therapy are impressive, the treatment of multiple sclerosis with stem cells is still in its early stages and much research needs to be held. Researchers are in the process to confirm, if the immune system can actually be completely reset or if it is suppressed as a chronic condition. We should be very optimistic that this type of therapy will help those patients in the advanced stages.

Hematopoietic Stem Cell Transplants to Fight MS

Hematopoietic stem cell transplant (HSCT) is a process that uses blood-forming stem cells (SC) to treat patients who have cancer, blood disorders and serious problems with their immune systems.

HSCT is currently the only medical hope offered to people suffering from multiple sclerosis (MS) who want to stop the disease – that effectively shuts down the immune system – from progressing further. While there are some relatively new medications that are approved by the FDA, that reduce and slow down the development of MS, so far none of these is able to stop or reverse the condition.

HSCT has been proven to halt MS. Even though it is a grueling process that is tough on the body and soul, and certainly should not be taken lightly, there is considerable evidence that it works. The result is a growing body of patients willing to face the process in their desire to escape from the debilitating chains of MS.

Because it is considered experimental in the USA, and because there are other major technical “roadblocks” in this country that prevent most of the population from getting access to the treatment, most of those opting for HSCT for MS are forced to travel abroad, to countries like Russia and Israel for treatment.

Understanding Multiple Sclerosis

Multiple sclerosis is a chronic disease that involves an immune system attack against the vital central nervous system. It doesn’t follow any set pattern, and its onset is frequently accompanied by impaired vision and stumbling that is caused by a lack of balance. Over time a variety of symptoms and pathological lesions are disseminated anatomically.

The symptoms of MS are varied and its severity, as well as the speed at which it progresses, is unpredictable. Typical mild symptoms include numbness in the toes, fingers and limbs in general, while severe symptoms may include temporary blindness and even paralysis. Even though these are well known, doctors often have difficulty diagnosing the disease until it is deep-seated, and the patient is severely disabled.

Nevertheless, most people with MS are believed to have a reasonably normal life expectancy, based of course on other health factors as well as weight and environmental issues.

How HSCT Works to Halt MS

Blood cells give us immune protection; and the SCs that are responsible for constantly renewing these blood cells (as well as the immune cells) are called hematopoietic stem cells (HSCs). The two hallmarks of these cells are their ability to produce cells that generate different blood cell types, and their ability to renew themselves.

Basic steps in any HSCT process include:

  • Stimulation of SC growth
  • Collection of SC
  • Chemotherapy
  • The transplant itself
  • Engraftment of the SCs and new immune system
  • Recovery

Mobilization of Stem Cells in the Patient’s Body Historically, hematopoietic stem cells were extracted from bone marrow that also contains other cell types. Today the medical profession harvests the stem cells from peripheral blood that is circulating in the body, stimulating (or mobilizing) the stem cells to migrate more quickly, and in greater numbers, into the blood stream. Since only a very small percentage of the cells in the blood will be HSCs, this improves the odds.

Apheresis After about four days of mobilization, apheresis (which is the collection of the stem cells) takes place. The process takes anything from two to four hours during which time it is withdrawn through a catheter and circulated through a machine that separates the different types of cells. Red blood cells are returned to the body and the SCs are frozen and stored in readiness for the transplant.

Chemotherapy This is carried out over a period of days and is done to “shut down” and effectively destroy the existing immune system. Care must be taken that the patient is not exposed to infection.

HSCT The extracted cells are defrosted, and in a process that is very similar to a blood transfusion, returned to the patient’s body. Side effects often include nausea, coughing and chilling, fever and hot flushes, headaches, and stomach cramps.

Engraftment After a couple of weeks, the SCs should be growing well and a new immune system that has no memory of the multiple sclerosis should be developing. One the blood count rises and the while blood cells are able to fight any infection, the patient is discharged.

Recovery This is gradual, and it often takes several years for patients to be able to evaluate the results of the transplant. While the results will vary – some patients having greater success than others – generally the progression and activity of the MS will be halted once the transplanted stem cells have regrown and established themselves.