Could your child’s stem cells hold the key to curing cancer?

 In Our Transplants, Stem Cell News

Probably the most dreaded word in medicine, cancer affects millions of people around the world and the number of new cases is rising each year. The World Health Organization (WHO) reported 14.1 million new cases in 2012 but forecast that this figure would rise to 23.6 million by 2030.

However, the search for a cure has been gathering momentum, with the use of stem cells offering genuine hope that we could beat the disease before that date arrives.

In the UAE, cancer is the third biggest cause of death, behind heart disease and accidents, according to a 2010 study by Sheikh Hamdan Bin Rashid Al-Maktoum Award for Medical Sciences’ Centre for Arab Genomic Studies. The study also noted that childhood cancers represent about 9.5% of all cancer cases in the UAE, with an average of 9.2 cases out of every 100,000 Emirati children. Yet it’s our children – specifically newborn babies – who hold the key to the cure.

In the UAE, cancer is the third biggest cause of death, behind heart disease and accidents, according to a 2010 study by Sheikh Hamdan Bin Rashid Al-Maktoum Award for Medical Sciences’ Centre for Arab Genomic Studies.

Stem cell therapy, using stem cells from umbilical cord blood banked at birth, is proving a most effective weapon in the battle against cancer. Ongoing research and clinical studies continue to reveal the huge potential of this groundbreaking form of medicine when it comes to treating and preventing many different forms of this devastating disease. In fact, scientists are currently investigating the use of stem cells as a potential cure.

Banking your baby’s precious cord blood cells enables your family to take advantage of the breakthroughs that stem cell therapy can provide to help beat cancer and safeguard their health. 

How stem cells are already treating cancer

Let’s take a closer look at how stem cell therapy is currently helping, what the treatment involves and what this could mean for the health of you and your family. In each case treatment begins with a course of chemotherapy and, in some cases, radiation therapy to kill the cancerous cells, before the transfusion of cord blood stem cells. 

Leukemia is the name for a group of blood cancers that affect the white blood cells of the blood immune system. It is one of the most common forms of cancer in infants. When the body develops leukemia, abnormal white cells in the blood grow too quickly, pushing the entire system out of balance, weakening and completely blocking the immune system. The cancerous white blood cells can spread into the lymphatic system and, from there, move throughout the body.

Cord blood stem cells offer a viable alternative to bone marrow transplant (itself a rich source of stem cells) in the treatment of leukemia, because stem cells are easier to collect and can be stored frozen until needed. Cord blood stem cells are injected directly into the veins, where they travel to the depleted bone marrow and begin repairing the damage. The stem cells replace the diseased blood cells and those damaged by the chemotherapy and restore healthy bone marrow.

Another advantage of cord blood stem cells over bone marrow is that they are less likely to cause immune rejection or complications such as Graft versus Host disease, which occurs when the donated stem cells view the recipient’s body as foreign and attack it.

Lymphoma accounts for nearly two-thirds of all childhood malignancies. The disease occurs when the body’s cell structure changes, leading to oversized cells that put the body’s system out of balance, or to the development of tumours. The cancer affects the lymphatic system, which helps fight off disease and is a crucial part of the immune system.

After transfusion the healthy stem cells travel to the damaged areas, repairing and generating new cells. In some cases lower doses of chemotherapy are used in combination with transplanted stem cells. This ‘mini-transplant’ increases the effectiveness of the body’s natural immune system and works together with the body to fight off the cancer. 

Multiple Myeloma is a form of cancer caused by malignant plasma cells. Plasma cells, found in the bone marrow, make the antibodies that help the body attack and kill bacteria. When plasma cells become cancerous and grow out of control, they can produce a tumour, which generally develops in the bone. In cases of more than one tumour, the disease is called multiple myeloma. A transfusion of blood-forming stem cells is given to repair the damage and form new healthy cells. 

A transfusion of blood-forming stem cells is given to repair the damage and form new healthy cells. 

Neuroblastoma, a type of cancer that most commonly affects infants, corrupts special nerve cells called neuroblasts to form a malignant tumour. Normally, these immature cells grow into functioning nerve cells, but in neuroblastoma they develop into cancer cells instead. When neuroblastoma is found and treated in infancy, the chance of recovery is good.

The goal of transplantation is to destroy cancer cells in the marrow, blood and other parts of the body and allow replacement blood stem cells to create healthy bone marrow. The healthy stem cells are infused into the patient’s vein and find their way to the bone marrow, where they replace the damaged cells and restore normal blood counts. 

Tackling the disease before it takes hold

The stem cell therapies described above are being used as an important part of the treatment of several types of cancer but the technology is also showing promising signs of tackling the disease at an earlier stage. A transplant of fresh stem cells can often find and kill cancerous cells much more effectively and quickly than the recipient’s own immune system, which is compromised by the illness. This means that certain kinds of stem cell transplants can actually fight the cancer cells rather than being administered once the damage is done.

According to a 2013 US study published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology, survival rates have increased significantly among patients who received blood stem cell transplants from both related and unrelated donors. The study analysed outcomes for more than 38,000 transplant patients with life-threatening blood cancers and other diseases over a 12-year period, capturing approximately 70-90% of all related and unrelated blood stem cell transplants performed in the US. The increase in survival rates was attributed to several factors, including advances in matching donor/recipient compatibility, better supportive care and earlier referral for transplantation. This success reinforces the role of blood stem cell transplants as a curative option for life-threatening blood cancers. 

Could stem cell therapy prevent cancer altogether?

In addition to treating cancer directly, stem cell research is helping scientists to understand the biology of cancer cells, which in turn may lead to developing greater prevention. Some of the more recent studies have shown that certain cancers are maintained by a small cluster of stem cells that are able to self-renew. Scientists are looking to find out more about the genes that regulate this self-renewal feature of cancer stem cells so that drugs can be developed to specifically destroy them and stop the cancer from developing. Also, by identifying and isolating cancer stem cells from tumours, researchers can get a closer look at the exact make-up of the cancer gene.

In the case of breast cancer, for example, advances in technology have led to the identification of stem cells in normal and malignant breast tissue. The study of these stem cells furthers the understanding of the molecular complexity of human breast cancer, which in turn could help to determine improved strategies for early detection, prevention and treatment. 

How far can stem cell treatment go?

With the success of stem cell therapy in the treatment of several types of blood cancer, it is hoped that stem cell transplants will provide the basis for treatments of many other forms of cancer. Could cancerous tissue in the brain, for example, receive stem cells that replenish those damaged through radiation therapy?

One clinical study in the UK is looking at stem cell therapy as a treatment for pancreatic cancer, which currently has extremely limited treatment options and a poor prognosis for the majority of patients diagnosed. The study is examining the use of specially engineered stem cells to re-activate the body’s immune system so that it can recognise and fight pancreatic cancer cells itself.

One clinical study in the UK is looking at stem cell therapy as a treatment for pancreatic cancer, which currently has extremely limited treatment options and a poor prognosis for the majority of patients diagnosed.

As scientists learn more and more about the ability of stem cells to repair and regenerate in the body, they are also closely examining each development phase of a healthy stem cell. By fully understanding this process, scientists can better gauge how abnormalities, such as the growth of cancerous cells, are triggered and can focus on developing new treatments to prevent or treat the abnormalities.

Recent advances have seen the foundations laid for the genetic engineering of stem cells compatible with the patient’s immune system. This personalised approach will deliver selective cancer cell suicide-inducing genes, with the intention that these genes only kill off cancer cells while leaving healthy cells unaffected.

Cancer is one of the biggest medical challenges for modern medicine. However, the success of blood stem cell therapy as an integral part of the effective treatment and cure of numerous forms of this complex disease offers real hope. Parents who are choosing to bank their newborn’s cord blood stem cells now are building a resource that could turn out to be literally an investment for life.

About the author: Shamshad Ahmed, CEO and Founder of Smart Cells International.
Shamshad Ahmed is CEO and Founder of Smart Cells International Ltd. Opening in 2000, Smart Cells became the UK’s first private cord blood company – its goal to give parents more access to potentially life-saving treatment for their families. It is one of the UK’s largest private banks, operating across the globe and storing over 50,000 cord blood samples from people in over 70 countries. Shamshad started his career in finance and foreign exchange at Citibank before moving over to the world of clinical trials. He holds a BA from Nottingham Trent University, and he has been a member of the Young President’s Organization since 2008 – having served on the board for a number of those years.

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