How can individuals benefit from this, and what questions should consumers be asking?
Though recent research has made significant headway in providing us with information about risk factors for and genetic links to various diseases, we are still quite a long way from being able to truly predict our medical future. That uncertainty, and the desire to decrease our risk of preventable diseases, drives many of us to embrace a healthy lifestyle—eating well and exercising to promote long-term health, seeking preventive medical care, and undergoing regular screening for cancer. The same desire to ensure against potential future health issues is also the motivation behind a recent surge in interest in adult stem cell collection.
What are stem cells?
There are two types of stem cells: embryonic and adult. Embryonic stem cells are found in early-stage embryos. They are undifferentiated, or immature, cells that have not yet developed into specialized body cells (blood cells, nerve cells, or muscle cells, for example) and have the ability to develop into almost any type of body cell.
Adult stem cells are also undifferentiated cells that can be found among differentiated, or specialized, cells within the tissues of the adult body and can develop into the cell type of the tissue in which they are found and, in some cases, can become specialized cells of a different tissue. These cells—found in the brain, bone marrow, peripheral blood, blood vessels, skeletal muscle, skin, teeth, heart, gut, liver, ovarian epithelium, and testes—maintain and repair the tissue in which they are found.
Why collect and store adult stem cells?
Until fairly recently, adult stem cells have been collected primarily for research purposes. Scientists study them to learn about the cells themselves and how they might be used to treat various diseases, to screen new drugs, and to study potential causes of birth defects.
The purpose of storing one’s own adult stem cells through a specialized stem cell banking service is, obviously, more personal. Those who choose to do so are taking the step proactively, with the idea that, should they encounter specific healthcare challenges in the future, they would be able to use the stored cells to their own benefit.
Currently, the primary use of adult stem cells is as treatment for blood cancers, such as leukemia, lymphomas, and multiple myelomas. Robin Smith, MD, MBA, chief executive officer of NeoStem, the first company to provide an adult stem cell collection and banking service to the general population, says that the potential for treating other diseases is great. “Today there are more than 3,400 clinical trials being conducted in the United States, looking at treatments for other diseases such as lupus, multiple sclerosis, Crohn’s disease, and many more.”
Dr. Smith says that many of the patients who are pursuing adult stem cell banking are prompted to do so by both the established, current uses for these cells and the potential that they offer for future treatments. “Some individuals are preparing for [the future] by storing their own stem cells as a form of insurance for their future or the future of their children.”
Are there ethical issues surrounding adult stem cells?
While there has been controversy related to research conducted using embryonic stem cell lines because these cells are taken from a human embryo (created through in vitro fertilization), adult stem cells do not present the same ethical issues.
How are adult stem cells collected?
At NeoStem adult stem cells are collected from circulating blood. This means that an individual will first receive two injections of a stem cell mobilizing agent, which increases the number of stem cells in the bloodstream; then the stem cells are collected during a process similar to platelet donation, lasting three to four hours. The collected stem cells are then stored in a cryo-preservation tank. Normal activities can be resumed almost immediately after collection, and one should not lose any time from work.
What else should consumers know about adult stem cell banking?
Adult stem cell banking offers an opportunity to take a proactive step that will potentially provide medical benefit in the future, but there are no guarantees that people will use the cells they have banked or that their cells will be able to be used for future regenerative or other medical advances.
Adult stem cell collection is currently not covered by insurance, so the consumer pays for the collection and the storage.
Collection and banking: