Stem Cells for Leukaemia
By: Ian Murnaghan BSc (hons), MSc – Updated: 31 May 2015
When people complain that it is taking too long to bring stem cell treatments to the general public, they often forget that one of the longest standing stem cell therapies to date is the bone marrow transplant. This transplant is aimed at treating leukaemia and other kinds of cancer, in addition to blood disorders.
What is Leukaemia?
In leukaemia, a person essentially has a cancer involving their white blood cells. These blood cells are formed in a process that initially uses multipotent adult stem cells. When mature white blood cells get sent into the bloodstream, they have the important job of fighting infections that attack our bodies.
An Immune System that Fails to Protect
When a person has leukaemia, these white blood cells no longer grow and function effectively as they should. The cells become cancerous and the body can no longer fight off infection. The functioning of all the body’s organs is compromised and the patient is basically vulnerable to any infection because their immune system does not work as it should.
Successfully Treating Leukaemia
To effectively treat leukaemia, these abnormal white blood cells must be dealt with, so that healthy white blood cells can grow instead. Whereas chemotherapy uses incredibly strong drugs to target and destroy these abnormal blood cells, there are major side-effects and it does not kill all of them by itself. A bone marrow transplant can help to enhance the effects of the chemotherapy and restore the patient’s immune system.
Using a Bone Marrow Transplant
With a bone marrow transplant, the patient’s bone marrow stem cells get replaced with healthy ones from a suitable, matching donor. All their abnormal ones are first eliminated through chemotherapy and then the donor’s bone marrow that has healthy stem cells gets transferred into the cancer patient’s bloodstream.
Assuming the transplant is successful, these healthy stem cells travel to the patient’s bone marrow and start producing healthy new white blood cells to replace the cancerous ones.
Newer Stem Cell Therapies for Leukaemia
Despite the success of the traditional bone marrow transplant, there are still issues that have prompted refinement of the procedure. In newer techniques, researchers have found ways to help the stem cells in the donor blood to multiply, making them more powerful in wiping out diseases such as cancer.
One of the problems with traditional bone marrow therapies is that the donor has to be a match to the cancer patient. In newer approaches, the technique removes the need for the donor to match the patient. The higher concentration of stem cells provides more successful results, helping improve patient outcomes.
Improving Leukaemia Treatment and Options
Leukaemia is a devastating disease that can affect young and old alike. Stem cells are one traditional therapy that has been around for decades, helping sufferers to bring the cancer into remission and helping them recover from the deadly disease.
The issues around immunological rejection are important ones that have prompted more refined stem cell techniques such as the one above. Overall, however, new techniques to improve the use of stem cells is promising and will hopefully continue to give rise to even more effective stem cell procedures to help leukaemia patients.