Basic Introduction to Stem Cells
Adult Stem Cells versus Embryonic Stem Cells
Adult stem cells are nothing new.
They have been in use in medical therapies for over 60 years, ever since the first successful bone marrow transplant was conducted by Dr. E. Donnall Thomas at New York’s Mary Imogene Bassett Hospital (now the Bassett Medical Center, an affiliate of Columbia University) in 1956 — a pioneering procedure for which Dr. Thomas would later win the 1990 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, shared with his colleague, the surgeon Dr. Joseph E. Murray.1
For more than half a century, both the safety and efficacy of adult stem cells have been well known, understood, and repeatedly, successfully proven in ongoing medical procedures around the world.
Adult stem cells are not embryonic stem cells.
Pictured above: adult stem cells in vitro.
You have stem cells floating around inside your body right now. Every time you cut your finger, break a bone, or incur some other type of injury, the stem cells in your body are responsible for healing the injury. Even without any injuries, it is the stem cells in your body which are constantly replenishing, renewing and regenerating the healthy tissue and cells throughout your entire body. These stem cells which exist within your body are known as adult stem cells.
In order to harvest embryonic stem cells, an embryo must be destroyed.
Unlike embryonic stem cells, adult stem cells are harvested through entirely ethical, safe, non-controversial means. Nothing, and no one, is destroyed nor even harmed, in any way, from the harvesting of adult stem cells.
To date, embryonic stem cells have never been successfully used to treat any condition. In fact, embryonic stem cells are highly problematic, as they cause the formation of teratomas: a particularly hideous type of tumor, often containing hair, teeth, bone, cartilage, and other bodily tissues. Teratomas can be both benign and malignant; the malignant form is known as a teratocarcinoma.
By definition, embryonic stem cells are required to form teratomas, in order to be classified as pluripotent.2 A stem cell can only be considered pluripotent if it is capable of forming tissue from all 3 germ layers: the ectoderm, the mesoderm, and the endoderm.2 This is why teratomas contain hair, teeth, bone, cartilage, and other bodily tissues, as these types of cells are produced by the different germ layers. Teratoma formation is the gold standard by which pluripotency is determined in the laboratory; preferably, it is conducted in vivo, usually by injection into mice, rather than in vitro. The unsuspecting mouse is injected with a particular cell, and the laboratory researchers wait to see if a teratoma forms; if it does, then this is proof that the cell was pluripotent, but if no teratoma forms, then the cell cannot be considered pluripotent.2
Induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSC) are even more problematic than embryonic stem cells, since iPSCs have been found to develop teratomas “More Efficiently and Faster Than Human Embryonic Stem Cells Regardless the Site of Injection.” 3
Hence, all pluripotent stem cells — whether embryonic or iPSCs — are highly problematic scientifically, and highly dangerous medically. Sadly, though not surprisingly, some unsuspecting patients who have sought medical treatment with embryonic stem cells have developed tumors.
By contrast, adult stem cells are entirely different from embryonic stem cells. Adult stem cells are not pluripotent and do not cause the formation of tumors. As mentioned above, adult stem cells have already been used by the conventional medical establishment throughout the world for over 60 years, safely and effectively.
Contrary to early beliefs, years ago when stem cell science was in its infancy, it is now well understood that pluripotency is not necessary for a medical therapy to be effective. In fact, pluripotency is extremely undesirable, if the medical therapy is to be safe.
The most important type of all the various kinds of adult stem cells is the mesenchymal stem cell (MSC). In addition to being found in bone marrow, it is also found on every single blood vessel throughout the entire human body. You have an innumerable number of MSCs throughout your body at this very moment. If you didn’t, you wouldn’t be alive. The MSC is the heroic stem cell warrior which comes to the rescue, every time there is an injury somewhere in the body.
Pictured above: Human umbilical cord MSCs
Not all MSCs are created equal, however. Umbilical cord blood is an especially rich source of especially powerful MSCs. Although the nomenclature is not very precise, even MSCs that are derived from umbilical cord blood are actually categorized as adult stem cells. They are not embryonic stem cells. They are entirely separate from the embryo, and therefore entirely unrelated to embryonic stem cells.
Umbilical cord blood-derived MSCs have a number of extraordinary properties. One of the most important of these properties is the fact that these MSCs are “immune-privileged” — unlike MSCs derived from bone marrow — meaning that they can be used to treat anyone, without immune rejection. With MSCs derived from umbilical cord blood, there is no need to use one’s own stem cells to treat oneself, nor is there any need for complicated “matching” between donor and recipient, which is rarely successful, nor is there any need for the barbaric immune-suppression that is often used in bone marrow transplants.
As Neil Riordan, Ph.D., writes in his book, Stem Cell Therapy, A Rising Tide — How Stem Cells Are Disrupting Medicine and Transforming Lives:
“Cord blood, unlike bone marrow, is immune privileged. The stem cells that come from cord blood are immunologically more immature so they do not set off an attack from the recipient’s immune system. This meant that we could treat patients with cord blood cells without the expensive and time-consuming process of matching the cells to the patient or needing to use potentially harmful immune-suppressive drugs. In 2010, my colleague Tom Ichim and I wrote a book chapter on the immune privilege of umbilical cord stem cells.
It is also known that umbilical cord stem cells can act the same as bone marrow in that they can repopulate the bone marrow of a patient who is in need of new bone marrow because of chemo and/or radiation. In fact, the U.S. FDA classifies umbilical cord blood and the stem cells it contains as bone marrow in some of its regulations. Unlike bone marrow stem cells, transplanted umbilical cord stem cells when used for repopulating bone marrow have a much lower risk to the patient of developing graft-versus-host disease due to their immaturity. Umbilical cord blood is being used more and more in bone marrow transplants because of these advantages over bone marrow.” 4
It is estimated that in recent years, MSCs have been used to treat between 30,000 to 50,000 people worldwide, without any reports of adverse side effects.5
Unlike MSCs derived from bone marrow, MSCs that are derived from umbilical cord blood are not recognized as foreign by the body. This allows the MSCs to be used as “off-the-shelf” therapies.
Indeed, a number of biotech companies have developed highly successful, highly profitable products based upon the unique characteristics of MSCs. Read about one such company, Osiris Therapeutics, here.
Nature has given us umbilical cord blood in abundant supply. Every day, in every nation on earth, umbilical cords are routinely discarded as bio-waste, along with the rest of the afterbirth. These immune-privileged MSCs are genetically hard-wired to stimulate regeneration, reduce inflammation, and modulate the immune system.
Slowly but surely, the conventional medical establishment is beginning to recognize the powerful healing properties of this naturally occurring, abundant type of cell.
As Dr. Neil Riordan explains in his book,
“MSCs address immune imbalance and inflammation in ways that CD34+ cells cannot. CD34+ cells do not elicit a T cell response by the immune system, but MSCs take it one step further—they actually suppress immune response, an important safety factor when using cells from a donor. All doctors are taught in medical school that the presence of a foreign cell from another organism will always trigger a strong T cell immune response against the “invading” donor cell. But MSCs do not elicit this response. They are immunologically immature. In other words, MSCs are not antigenic, so they are tolerated by the immune system and do not require immune-suppressive drugs as part of their treatment. They are also non-tumorigenic because they do not differentiate into any cell, as do embryonic stem cells. Additionally, the safety profile of MSCs is excellent, making them the most-suited cell therapy for the conditions we treat.” 6
As Dr. Neil Riordan further writes in his book:
“Not a lot was known about MSCs before 2004, but since then there has been a meteoric rise in interest, a trend that doesn’t appear to be slowing down any time soon.” 7
Indeed, the number of articles in medical journals about mesenchymal stem cells has increased exponentially over the past decade. This graph illustrates the number of medical articles containing the term “mesenchymal” in their titles, as indicated on the website of the National Institutes of Health (PubMed):
At the time of this writing, there are nearly 800 clinical trials for adult stem cell therapies using MSCs which are currently underway throughout the world.8
Click here for a table that lists data from all ongoing MSC clinical trials, divided into two broad categories: autologous (in which the donor and recipient are the same person), and allogeneic (in which the donor and recipient are different people). As you’ll be able to see, the allogeneic clinical trials greatly outnumber the autologous ones — due to the immune-privileged nature of umbilical cord blood-derived MSCs, as described above.
Click here to learn more about the MSC secretome — the trophic factors, cytokines, and other powerful healing molecules secreted by MSCs.
As Dr. Riordan explains further about MSCs,
“The cells are also immune privileged, meaning the immune system of the recipient does not recognize them as foreign, or ‘not self,’ when they are first administered. In addition, unlike embryonic stem cells, these cells do not want to become babies! Instead, their normal function is to support homeostasis (the healthy status quo) by responding to and decreasing inflammation and stimulating regeneration in tissue in need of it.” 9
“We’re taking what nature has given us in abundant supply—immune-privileged, genetically hard-wired medicinal signaling cells that have the ability to stimulate regeneration, reduce inflammation, and modulate the immune system—selecting for the best ones, expanding them, and giving them to people with inflammation, immune dysfunction, or lack of regeneration.” 10
With the recent passing into law of Texas HB 810, known as “Charlie’s Law,” it will now be legal, for the first time ever in the U.S., for patients to receive medical therapy with expanded adult stem cells such as MSCs – but only in the state of Texas.
Click here to learn more about “Charlie’s Law.”
4 Stem Cell Therapy, A Rising Tide — How Stem Cells are Disrupting Medicine and Transforming Lives, by Neil H. Riordan, Ph.D, p. 42.
5 Ibid, p. 58.
6 Ibid., p. 46.
7 Ibid., p. 47.
9 Stem Cell Therapy, A Rising Tide — How Stem Cells are Disrupting Medicine and Transforming Lives, by Neil H. Riordan, Ph.D, p. 36.
10 Ibid., p. 246.