While you may have heard of them in the news and politics, stem cells are also an integral component of treatment for blood and bone marrow cancers. Stem cells are found throughout the different tissue in your body, and they’re used in treatment because they have the ability to regenerate and make new cells.
Stem Cell Therapy in Cancer
Cancer causes a cell to change, act abnormally and then spread, causing new cells to carry on the same abnormal function. In a hematopoietic stem cell transplant procedure, doctors take healthy stem cells from your blood or bone marrow (or from a donor), treat the cancer in your body and put the stem cells back in your blood stream. These healthy cells travel from your blood to your bone marrow and go on to make red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets.
Also called a bone marrow transplant, the procedure is used to treat leukemia, multiple myeloma, myelodysplastic syndrome and some types of lymphoma. Stem cells used in this treatment are not the same as the controversial embryonic stem cells. These cells come from your own body, a willing matched donor or umbilical cord blood.
How the Procedure Works
Your doctor may discuss a few different options for the transplant depending on your disease, but any stem cell transplant procedure essentially follows the same four steps.
- Cell collection: If you’re able to use your own cells, this is called an autologous transplant, according to the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. Your cells will be collected, usually from your blood, and frozen until needed. If the cancer doesn’t allow the doctor to use your own cells, you will have an allogeneic transplant, using the cells from a matched donor. This donor can be a sibling, parent or stranger from a registry. The cells are collected either from the person’s blood or bone marrow and saved until needed.
- Cancer treatment: You undergo high-dose chemotherapy and sometimes radiation. This treatment not only kills the cancer cells, but also the stem cells in your bone marrow, which are responsible for making red and white blood cells.
- Stem cell transfusion: The stored stem cells are put back into your blood stream through an IV infusion where they should be able to make the red and white blood cells and bone marrow cells your body needs.
- Recovery: You will take some medications to help prevent complications and assist in your recovery. It can take about a month to develop new cells. Throughout the recovery process, your medical team will monitor you to make sure your body’s not rejecting the cells.
The procedure does carry risks that new cells won’t develop or that your body may reject the donor’s cells. Receiving a donor’s cells may also boost your immune system and encourage your body’s ability to fight residual cancer cells, called graft-versus-tumor effect.
Stem cell transplants have been around for decades and have made great advances in providing people with more options and better survival. The regenerative power of stem cells holds exciting possibilities for future cancer treatments, as well as the treatment of other diseases.
UVA Cancer Center has a growing stem cell transplant program and has received international accreditation through the Foundation for the Accreditation of Cellular Therapy (FACT) for the treatment. The center is also recognized by the National Marrow Donor Program, which provides patients at our center access to the Be The Match Registry, the largest and most diverse bone marrow donor registry in the world. These affiliations demonstrate UVA’s commitment to upholding the highest standards in stem cell transplant procedures.
UVA Cancer Center provides high-level care, including stem cell transplants, to patients with blood diseases. Learn more about your treatment options and how you can become a donor.Learn More