Stem cell therapy is an exciting area of research. Scientists are beginning to understand how stem cells work and how they can be used to treat medical conditions. But stem cell therapies are still experimental. No stem cell therapies have been approved by the FDA to treat conditions such as COPD, diabetes, or heart disease.
What are stem cells?
Cells have been called the “building blocks of life.” Your body is made of many different kinds of cells, each with its own job. Most cells are specialized. This means that they have different shapes and sizes, depending on their jobs.1
Stem cells are unspecialized cells. They can develop into different cell types. There are several kinds of stem cells, which do different things (Table).1,2
Stem Cell Type
Embryonic stem cells
These cells can develop into any cell type in the body. They usually come from a 3- to 5-day old embryo that was created by in vitro fertilization for the purpose of assisted reproduction. Embryos that are no longer needed for that purpose may be donated for research.
Adult (somatic) stem cells
These cells are somewhat more limited. They are unspecialized cells found among the specialized cells in a particular organ or tissue. Adult stem cells can develop into some or all of the specialized cell types found in that organ or tissue. Subtypes include hematopoietic (blood-forming) stem cells and mesenchymal (stromal) stem cells.
Induced pluripotent stem cells
These are specialized cells that have been engineered to act like embryonic stem cells. This means that they have been manipulated (“induced”) in the lab so that they can develop into any cell type in the body (“pluripotent”).
How can stem cells be used to treat medical problems?
Stem cells have two important characteristics:1,2
They can self-renew. This means that they divide and make copies of themselves.
They can develop into specialized cells.
These two characteristics make stem cells very exciting to scientists looking for new treatments.
Stem cells are already used to treat blood cancers, such as leukemia or lymphoma, and other blood disorders.3 A person with blood cancer may be treated with radiation or a high dose of chemotherapy to kill the cancer cells. These treatments also damage the bone marrow, which is where new blood cells form. The patient receives hematopoietic (blood-forming) stem cells after the cancer treatment. The stem cells start to make new blood cells within a few weeks.
Researchers hope that in the future, stem cells can be used to replace damaged tissue. They may also be useful in helping the body repair itself.1,2 Stem cells are being studied to treat a variety of diseases. Right now, much of the research is focused on treatments for diabetes, heart disease, macular degeneration, and multiple sclerosis.1
Can COPD be treated with stem cell therapy?
Researchers do not know yet whether stem cells can be used to treat COPD. In rodents, treatment with adult stem cells has improved some lung disease, including COPD.4 These results have piqued the interest of researchers who want to know more about the effects on humans.
The first human study was disappointing.4 Sixty-two people with moderate to severe COPD were randomly assigned to adult stem cells or fake treatment (placebo). Patients received four monthly infusions. According to the authors, the results showed that stem cell infusions were safe. However, the people who got stem cells did not have improvements in lung function. Stem cell treatment also did not improve patients’ quality of life or symptoms. The authors point out that the trial was designed to study the safety of the treatment. It did not have enough participants to fully study whether the treatment works.
To date, the FDA has not approved any stem cell therapy for COPD.5 No major medical association has endorsed use of stem cells for COPD.6
Should I participate in a clinical trial of stem cell therapy?
Clinical trials are needed to prove that stem cell therapies are safe and effective. Not all clinical trials are high-quality or credible. For people who are interested in clinical trials, the International Society for Stem Cell Research has a list of questions to consider.1 In general, makers of a credible clinical trial are:1
Registration in a national or international registry (ClinicalTrials.gov or International Clinical Trials Registry)
Approval by a regulatory body, such as the FDA
Absence or disclosure of conflicts of interest
Qualified researchers and health care providers
Usually, the drug company or government agency running a clinical trial pays for the cost of treatment. It should be a red flag if you are asked to cover the cost of treatment as a participant in a trial.1
International Society for Stem Cell Research. A closer look at stem cells. Accessed 1/12/16 at: http://www.closerlookatstemcells.org/
National Institutes of Health. Stem cell information. Accessed 1/12/16 at: http://stemcells.nih.gov/info/basics/pages/basics1.aspx
American Cancer Society. Why would someone need a stem cell transplant? Accessed 1/13/16 at:
Weiss DJ, Casaburi R, Flannery R, LeRoux-Williams M, Tashkin DP. A placebo-controlled, randomized trial of mesenchymal stem cells in COPD. Chest. 2013;143:1590-1598.
US Food and Drug Administration. FDA warns about stem cell claims. Accessed 1/13/16 at: http://www.fda.gov/forconsumers/consumerupdates/ucm286155.htm
American Lung Association. Public Policy Position – Research. 6/23/12. Accessed 1/13/16 at: http://www.lung.org/get-involved/become-an-advocate/public-policy-position-research.html