Stem cell transplantation is a type of cancer treatment that helps to restore the stem cells responsible for blood forming in patients who have had their own blood forming stem cells destroyed, either through radiotherapy or chemotherapy.
What types of cancers currently benefit from stem cell therapy?
Stem cell cancer treatment is used to help treat patients with certain types of cancers, namely leukemia and lymphoma, although it can also be used to help treat neuroblastoma as well as multiple myeloma.
One of the reasons that stem cell therapy can be used to help patients with cancer is not because it is used to fight the cancer directly (although it can be), but because the stem cell cancer treatment allows the patient to receive incredibly high doses of chemo and/or radiotherapy. And it’s these therapies that actually work to get rid of the cancer.
Chemo and radiotherapy are most effective against cells that divide rapidly – and those types of cells tend to be cancerous more often than healthy cells. Saying that, bone marrow cells also divide quickly and so chemotherapy and radiotherapy can also target and destroy the patient’s own bone marrow.
And without bone marrow, the patient becomes immunocompromised and they are unable to fight even the simplest of infections, they can no longer make the red blood cells needed to carry oxygen around the body and the blood no longer clots.
It’s only once the patient has received the high dose chemotherapy and radiotherapy can they then receive a stem cell transplantation to replace the lost blood cells- and this is usually only after the cancer has gone into remission.
What are the different types of stem cell transplant?
The most common forms of stem cell therapy to help treat cancer are bone marrow transplants (BMT) or peripheral blood stem cell transplants (PBSCT). In BMT the patient receives healthy stem cells from their own bone marrow, or from the healthy bone marrow of a donor. For PBSCT, the patient receives healthy stem cells either from their own blood, or from the healthy blood of a donor.
When these healthy blood forming stem cells are transplanted into the patient they then divide to create more blood forming stem cells, which mature into the three different blood cells that our bodies need:
- White blood cells – these blood cells fight infections in the body.
- Red blood cells – these blood cells carry vital oxygen around the body.
- Platelets – these blood cells help blood to clot.
There are three types of sources for harvesting healthy blood stem cells:
- They can come from a donor (allogeneic transplant)
- From the patient themselves (autologous transplant)
- Or if the patient is an identical twin (syngeneic transplant)
What is the survival rate of a stem cell transplant?
The most important factor for survival rate of a stem cell transplant is the age of the donor. The younger the donor, the better the survival rate of the patient.
What are the side effects of stem cell therapy transplantation?
The side effects of stem cell therapy transplantation can include:
- Appetite loss
- Mouth ulcers
- Hair loss
- Skin rashes and reactions
- Secondary cancers
- Liver damage
- Kidney damage
- Lung damage
- Heart damage
To help minimise the first few side effects, the patient can be given antibiotics to help combat any infections, red blood cells to treat anemia as well as platelet transfusions to prevent bleeding.
Sometimes after allogeneic transplants Grant Versus Host Disease (GVHD) occurs if the stem cells from the donor aren’t a close enough match to the patient’s own. The donor stem cells see the cells in the patient’s body as a threat and attack them. To prevent this from happening, patients can receive medication to suppress their immune system. Either that or the white blood cells that are known to cause GVHD are removed through a process known as T-cell depletion.