What diseases and conditions can be treated with stem cells?

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The most well-established and widely used stem cell treatment is the transplantation of blood stem cells to treat diseases and conditions of the blood and immune system, or to restore the blood system after treatments for specific cancers. The US National Marrow Donor Program has a full list of diseases treatable by blood stem cell transplant.  More than 26,000 patients are treated with blood stem cells in Europe each year.

Since the 1970s, skin stem cells have been used to grow skin grafts for patients with severe burns on very large areas of the body. Only a few clinical centres are able to carry out this treatment and it is usually reserved for patients with life-threatening burns. It is also not a perfect solution: the new skin has no hair follicles or sweat glands. Research aimed at improving the technique is ongoing.

Currently, these are the only stem cell therapies that have been thoroughly established as safe and effective treatments. Some other applications of stem cells are being investigated in clinical trials, including the use of stem cells to regenerate damaged tissues – such as heart, skin, bone, spinal cord, liver, pancreas and cornea – or to treat blood or solid-organ cancers. The majority of these trials are using mesenchymal stem cells, which are derived from sources such as fat tissue, bone marrow and connective tissue. A small proportion of the trials are using blood stem cells.

Among the most advanced clinical trials are those that aim to treat certain bone, skin and corneal diseases or injuries with a graft of tissue grown from stem cells taken from these organs. For example, stem cells from the eye can be used to grow a new cornea for patients with certain kinds of eye damage. This has already been shown to be safe and effective in early stage trials. However, further studies with larger numbers of patients must be carried out before this therapy can be approved by regulatory authorities for widespread use in Europe.

Stem cell treatments are all specialist procedures. They should be performed only in specialized centers authorized by national health authorities.

All treatments should be considered experimental until they have successfully passed all the stages of clinical trials required to test a new therapy thoroughly. Only then will the treatment be approved for widespread use.

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Last updated: 
6 Oct 2011