You may have heard the term “stem cell transplant” in the news, but unless you or a loved one is experiencing a serious illness, you may not have the full picture of what it means. With the exception of small numbers of stem cells found in blood and the umbilical cord, most stem cells live deep within the bones in spongy tissue called bone marrow.
When stem cells mature, they become either oxygen-transporting red blood cells, infection-fighting white blood cells or blood-clotting agents called platelets. A stem cell transplant is a procedure that replaces unhealthy blood and marrow cells with healthy ones from a donor.
What Medical Conditions Can Benefit from a Stem Cell Transplant?
Stem cells transplants are used when a patient’s own cells don’t make sufficient healthy blood or immune cells or make too many unhealthy cells. They’re especially beneficial in fighting certain cancers, including multiple myelomas and some types of lymphomas and leukemias. The best treatment for these cancers is high-dose chemotherapy sometimes in conjunction with radiation. This treatment kills cancer cells, but it also kills bone marrow cells that make blood cells and platelets. Without stem cell transplants, doctors wouldn’t be able to treat cancer patients with the most promising tool in their cancer-fighting arsenal: high-dose chemotherapy. Not only do transplants of healthy stem cells replace cells destroyed from cancer treatment, sometimes transplanted stem cells actually attack and kill cancer cells.
Benefits of Stem Cell Transplants
By far, the biggest benefit of a stem cell transplant is that it gives a patient’s medical team the extra time to fight cancer with the most effective drugs. It can extend a patient’s life expectancy and sometimes buys enough time that a patient is completely cured.
The Research Continues
Stem cells (blood and marrow stem cells as well as embryonic stem cells) hold vast promise for furthering treatment of cancer and other diseases. Researchers have learned that embryonic stem cells and even adult stem cells can be used to create not only similar cells (i.e., marrow stem cells can create blood cells) but different cells (i.e., marrow stem cells can also create heart-muscle cells). As research continues, the potential benefits of stem cell transplants are seemingly endless.
Virginia Cancer Specialists offers transplant services at its Fairfax location. This program is a unique partnership between VCS and Inova Fairfax Hospital. To learn more about the Fairfax Stem Cell Transplant Program, please click here.