Treatment for cancer is never easy. Whether it’s choosing the treatment that’s right for you and
your cancer or weathering the experience of brutal treatment regimens like chemotherapy or
radiation, treating cancer is no walk in the park.
Especially with treatments like chemotherapy and radiation, despite being the go-to treatments,
leaving you feeling sick and miserable, there is a clear need for both new treatment options to
cure cancer as well as new ways to help people overcoming the nasty side effects of
Researchers have been looking at something within our very bodies as a possible tool in the
treatment of cancer: stem cells. Keep reading to learn more.
What are stem cells?
Think of stem cells as a blank canvas, just waiting to be painted. Stem cells are essentially the
blank canvas the body uses to create new cells. In fact, stem cells help create every specialized
cell in the body: brain cells, liver cells, lung cells, skin cells, and on and on.
How do stem cells work?
When needed, stem cells replicate themselves and either (1) become new stem cells or (2)
become the highly specialized cells the body needs to function.
This process is constantly happening. As the body needs new cells to replace ones that have
died, new cells are created.
Most stem cells live in the bone marrow (the inside of bones), where the live until they are
needed. That’s why bone marrow transplants are often used when someone needs stem cells.
The way stem cells operate has been of particular interest for the treatment of different kinds of
potential, especially for people with disease that cause tissue damage, such as type 1 diabetes
or heart disease. Cancer has also become a disease for which stem cells could have some
potential as a treatment option.
How do stem cells work for cancer?
How stem cells are used to treat cancer depends on the methods used to collect stem cells for
treatment. These processes are generally considered “transplants,” and there are two different
types of stem cell transplants:
- Autologous transplant. An autologous transplant involves the use of your own stem
- Allogeneic transplant. An allogeneic transplant involves receiving a transplant of a
donor's stem cells.
Generally speaking, the use of stem cells and stem cell transplants for cancer treatment tends
to be more as a curative option after someone undergoes treatment with chemotherapy or
radiation. That’s because chemotherapy and radiation, in addition to destroying cancer cells,
can also destroy healthy cells. This includes stem cells. Without enough stem cells in the body
following chemotherapy or radiation, it can be harder for the body to recover from receiving toxic
treatment. Having stem cells removed before chemotherapy, or receiving donor stem cells, can
help with treatment recovery.
Are stem cells effective as a cancer therapy?
Research is ongoing when it comes to understanding the role that stem cells could play in
cancer therapy. Here are some key findings that have emerged from existing research:
- Helpful for certain kinds of blood cancer (myelomas and leukemias). Some
research suggests that stem cells could have an anticancer effect in patients with certain
kinds of blood cancers, including helping improve the effectiveness of other treatment
options. It works through a process called graft versus tumor and works with allogeneic
transplants. The stem cells you receive as a transplant may contain immune cells that
can target and destroy and residual cancer cells that were not eliminated by treatments
- Helpful for recovery following other cancer treatments. Research shows that stem
cells can help patients in recovery after treatments like chemotherapy.
Is stem cell therapy safe for cancer?
Generally speaking, stem transplants have been performed for several years, so researchers
and clinicians know what to expect. However, as with any transplant (in this case, allogeneic),
there is always a risk for a condition called graft-versus-host disease. This condition occurs
because the body detects the transplanted cells as foreign to the body and attacks them.
With any type of cancer treatment, it’s important to make sure you fully understand the available
treatment options and choose options that work for you. This should include talking to your
doctor before starting any cancer treatment. They can help you decide which treatment options
are right for you.