Stem Cell Therapy for COPD: What You Need to Know
When you have a chronic, incurable disease, it's natural to be interested in research and new therapies that might offer hope and a solution that current treatments do not. Stem cell therapy is one of the most talked about and advertised potential new COPD treatments today. It's hard to do any search for COPD on the Internet without running into an ad or claim about stem cell therapy for COPD. In fact, one of the most highly regarded COPD blogs push stem cell treatment in almost every article they publish.
But is this a valid treatment? Or it some kind of scam?
What are stem cells?
Stem cells are a type of cell in the body that can regenerate on their own. During normal cell division, each new cell can choose either to remain a stem cell or become a different type of cell with a more specialized function. For example, stem cells might become muscle cells, red blood cells or brain cells. In some cases, they have proven useful as a sort of internal repair system.1
So, in other words, stem cells differ from other types of cells in two ways: 1
- Although unspecialized cells, they can renew themselves through cell division, often after long periods of dormancy.
- Under certain conditions, stem cells can be induced to become a whole different type of cell with special functions.
In the gut and bone marrow, stem cells regularly divide and repair or replenish the body tissues on their own. On the other hand, in other types of body organs, such as the heart and pancreas, stem cells will only behave like that when special conditions exist.
Stem cells can be obtained from both embryos (notably, mouse embryos) and adult tissues. Stem cells in embryos are what eventually morph into the entire organism. In adults, stem cells become replacements for cells that have been lost through normal wear and tear, injury, or disease. 1
What is their potential for treating disease?
Because of their regenerative abilities, stem cells do seem to offer some hope for treating certain illnesses. However, there is still much research to be done to prove the safety and effectiveness of stem cell therapy. Most research to date has been done in laboratories with mice, not with humans in the real world.
Also, while embryonic stem cells are able to replicate and form different types of specialized cells, the same may not be true for adult stem cells. Instead adult cells tend to generate the same types of cells as in the organ where they reside.1 Some scientists believe stem cells can be reprogrammed, given the right conditions. Whether or not this is true is a big debate in the scientific community.
Can stem cells help with lung disease?
While stem cells have been identified in many other parts of the body, experts did not believe they existed in lung tissue until the last decade or so. With this discovery, there was a surge of interest in using stem cell therapy for COPD.2
Certain cells in the smallest parts of your airways, the alveoli, can be destroyed by tobacco smoking or regular exposure to other harmful substances. This leads to difficulties in gas exchange (oxygen and carbon dioxide), resulting in the typical symptoms of COPD.3 Research done in the lab on animal models has shown promise in:3
- Regenerating alveolar-like structures
- Repairing lung tissue
- Reducing inflammation
However, to date, human clinical trials have failed to show any real benefit when stem cell therapy is used to treat COPD.3 Some experts theorize that result might be better when stem cell therapy is used earlier on in the development of COPD. However, the alternate take on this is that more traditional forms of therapy are also more effective when begun early. So there may be no real advantage to stem cell treatment. Or, could there be? We just don't know yet.
Other things to note about stem cell therapy
The International Society for Stem Cell Research published an extensive article on things to be aware of when it comes to stem cell therapy.4 I highly encourage you to read it before pursuing stem cell therapy for COPD. They caution:
"Many clinics offering stem cell treatments make claims that are not supported by a current understanding of science."
Here is a synopsis of their advice:
- Very few stem cell treatments have thus far been proven safe and effective, except in a few limited instances. Most do not have regulatory approval.
- When you try an unproven treatment, there is definitely something to lose, so carefully weigh the risks and benefits.
- Different types of stem cells serve different purposes in different parts of the body. Stem cells taken from one organ don't necessarily know what to do in another organ.
- Stem cell treatments that do work for one type of disease are not likely to work for another type of disease. They don't just automatically know where to go or what to do.
- You need to understand the science behind your disease in order to understand if the stem cell therapy being marketed makes sense. For example, stem cell therapy based on blood cells will not help heal your lung cells.
- Stem cells taken from your own body and then manipulated in the lab may or may not be safe to use. Just because they came from you doesn't mean they're OK.
- Anecdotal stories and testimonials should not be considered valid in the absence of clinical proof that stem cell therapy works for COPD.
- Experimental treatments, without regulatory approval and oversight, are not the same as a clinical trial conducted by legitimate researchers.
- While it can take years, or even decades, for new therapies to be approved, there's a reason for that. Science becomes medicine through a long, rigorous process designed to "minimize patient harm and to maximize the likelihood of effectiveness."4
Also, most stem cell therapy clinics are extremely expensive and are not covered by insurance. And they do not offer a guarantee that they'll even work, especially for COPD.
A promising option
Stem cell research is extremely promising. There have already been successes in treating blood-related diseases with stem cells derived from the blood.5 On the other hand, the results have been quite mixed when using stem cell therapy for other diseases, especially COPD. But research is progressing and more clinical trials are being developed each year. So perhaps one day soon, we will see a viable stem cell therapy for COPD. But that day has not yet arrived, no matter what you've heard.
Which of the following best describes your COPD diagnosis?