Disclaimer: Consult with a doctor before deciding on a treatment plan for cancer or any other disease.
Many patients know that Stem Cell Therapy can be used as an adjuvant therapy to repair damages caused by chemo and radiation, but few patients realize that stem cell therapies can be used as a stand-alone treatment for cancer. As with all alternative therapies, Stem Cell Therapy as a stand-alone treatment has a higher cure rate when it is administered without chemotherapy and radiation treatments. There are a variety of clinics throughout the world that offer Stem Cell Therapy as stand-alone cancer treatments.
Stem cell therapy is often used in tandem with chemotherapy and radiation to repair the damage to surrounding healthy tissues done by these treatments. This form of stem cell therapy should not be confused with the use of stem cell therapy to treat and cure cancer directly. Stem cell therapy can be used as a stand-alone cancer treatment.
The information available online about stem cell therapy is that which is heralded as an adjuvant treatment to repair the severe damage done by chemotherapy and radiation. In this “treatment,” the chemotherapy and/or radiation for the cancer damages and often destroys bone marrow in the surrounding areas, after which stem cells are reintroduced into a vein and then eventually make their way to the destroyed bone marrow area where they regrow and replenish the bone marrow and immune cells in this region of the body. The stem cell therapy used as a standalone cancer treatment and the mainstream bone-marrow-reparation stem cell therapy are two very different treatment options with different outcomes and very different side effects .
Four Types of Stem Cells
There are four different types of stem cells:
Totipotent stem cells are capable of turning into any cell in the body. After their first few divisions, embryonic stem cells are the only type of stem cell that are totipotent .
Pluripotent stem cells can turn into any of the cells that make up the body (but not extraembryonic or placental cells) .
Multipotent stem cells are more limited in terms of which cells they can produce, but they’re much more broad than unipotent stem cells .
Unipotent stem cells can only develop into one type of stem cell .
The other important distinction is that allogenic stem cells are obtained from a donor, and autologous stem cells are obtained from the patient themselves.
Stem cells have a controversial status in the United States and other western countries that are following mainstream medical practices. In some cases stem cell therapy is perceived as an innovative and exciting new technology, and therefore many patients may accept stem cell treatments without considering the potential repercussions or alternative motives behind the treatment . In other cases, stem cells and their use in medical settings is viewed as a questionable and unethical practice. Autologous stem cell therapy poses little risk to the patient since there is no real surgery and no foreign elements involved that could cause adverse reactions (because the cells are the patient’s own). However, as stated above, stem cell therapy (autologous and allogeneic) are often used to repair damage done by chemotherapy and radiation.
The following are examples of how standalone stem cell therapy for cancer has been discriminated against despite the use of stem cells to repair chemo and radiation damage in recent years. In the past decade in the United States, two different stem cell therapy clinics offering treatments for a variety of issues experienced backlash from the FDA.
- One clinic, StemImmune, is a company that specifically works with stem cell therapy and immunotherapy for cancer treatment. The company was founded in 2014 and is based in San Diego. According to the FDA, the company was and is practicing an “unapproved stem cell therapy.”
- Another clinic, the US Stem Cell Clinic (USCC), has three different locations in Florida. The clinic received a warning letter from the FDA in 2017 after three people reported damage to their vision after stem cell therapy administered during a study done by the clinic. The FDA stated that the clinic had been administering stem cell therapy for diseases that had not been approved to be treated with stem cells (such as Parkinson’s, heart disease, and amyotrphic lateral sclerosis). The FDA said that USCC didn’t allow investigators into the treatment center on their last visit to the clinic.
In an article by Time, Sean Morrison, the former president of the International Society for Stem Cell Research (ISSCR), was quoted as saying that “Clinics are preying on the hopes of desperate patients claiming they can cure all manner of diseases with stem cells that have not been tested in clinical trials, and in some cases, are flat out impossible.” .
USCC responded to the FDA’s warning with a long, detailed letter that explains very clearly how they have complied with U.S. law and the regulations governing pharmaceuticals and stem cell therapy. The letter is displayed on their website and can be found at this link: http://usstemcellclinic.com/fda-response/
Safety and Effectiveness
Stem Cell Types
Stem cells can be used in two different forms: autologous or allogeneic. Autologous stem cells come from the patient’s own body, and pose little risk to health since the body accepts them as its own.
Mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs) are being explored as a delivery method to get anti-cancer genes to cancer cells. These stem cells are adult stem cells (also known as somatic stem cells), and can be obtained from fat tissue, bone marrow, and/or connective tissue. Research has shown that MSCs are drawn to cancer cells of various types, including:
- Lung cancer
- Malignant glioma
- Kaposi’s sarcomas
- Breast cancer
- Colon carcinoma
- Pancreatic cancer
- Ovarian cancer
These MSCs may be genetically engineered to carry certain anti-cancer components. The genetic engineering is used to ensure that the stem cells develop in an appropriate manner. Under certain circumstances, stem cells directed at cancer may develop into cancer stem cells themselves. When this happens, the stem cells can perpetuate the problem instead of stopping it. Genetically engineered cells can be developed with anti-cancer properties. These cells may be engineered to release anti-cancer agents that work to inhibit tumor growth or even actively kill cancer cells .
Stem cell therapy can be used to enhance the body’s immune system and occasionally take over some duties normally done by the immune system. Cancer patients’ immune system capabilities are often reduced, and thus fresh stem cells will be more likely to be able to target and kill cancer cells effectively . Stem cells are capable of developing into a variety of cells in the blood and immune system, such as red and white blood cells and platelets. When the stem cells come from a relatively healthy person they may be able to be used to cultivate a stronger, healthier immune system capable of killing cancer .
In the treatment of pancreatic cancer, stem cells are specially engineered to strengthen the immune system and fight cancer cells. This works through the function and presence of certain proteins. On the surface of pancreatic cancer cells there is a protein known as PD-L1, and on the surface of our immune system’s T-cells there is a different protein called PD-1. The PD-L1 protein found on the cancer cells binds with the PD-1 protein on T-cells to inhibit the immune system’s ability to recognize and kill the cancer cells. Researchers have been able to develop a special component that is capable of binding itself to the PD-L1 protein to avoid future interaction between the PD-L1 and PD-1 proteins, thus allowing the T-cells to recognize and fight the cancer cells.
The above method has not been completely effective, which led researchers to discover that another type of cell called a Cancer Associated Fibroblast plays a role in these protein interactions. Cancer Associated Fibroblasts create a barrier that immune cells are unable to cross, so even if the PD-1 protein is present and the immune system is ready, the cancer cells cannot be reached. Researchers developed a type of cell similar to Cancer Associated Fibroblasts that were capable of destroying the barriers as well as carrying the PD-1 protein directly into the cancer cells .
How Stem Cell Therapy is Administered
The Stem Cell Transplant Institute in Costa Rica (which is no longer in operation) follows the following protocols for administering stem cell therapy.
- Harvest of the stem cells – The patient is given a local anesthesia in the abdominal area, where a small incision is made in order to extract fat (adipose) tissue.
- Separation of the stem cells from the fat tissue in the lab – This is done with the use of a stem cell centrifuge machine.
- Activation of stem cells – This is a multi-step process that consists of 1) enriching the stem cells with the patient’s blood plasma, 2) photo activating the cells, and then 3) appropriately preparing the stem cells to be transferred back to the patient.
- Stem cell therapy is officially administered – The stem cells may be transferred back to the patient via an IV using a saline drip bag, or they may injected via intrathecal, local subdermal, or intramuscular injections using a nebulizer. This step takes a few hours.
This clinic makes use of autologous, mesenchymal stem cells in its treatments. The stem cells are from adipose tissue, which makes it possible for doctors to extract and then reinsert the cells shortly after the extraction. And, the procedure for collecting these stem cells is much easier, more efficient, and less invasive than other methods. The use of autologous stem cells ensures that the patient’s body doesn’t reject the stem cells as well as making sure that there is no infection or possibility of transmittable diseases. Autologous stem cells from the adipose tissue are mature stem cells, which eliminates the chance of them turning into cancer stem cells; embryonic stem cells carry this possibility since they’re capable of turning into any type of cell under the right circumstances .
A similar, though slightly different, method for using stem cells to treat cancer was discovered by a group of Japanese researchers. The researchers discovered a way to utilize induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) to engineer “cancer-specific immune system cells.” In the study, researchers obtained mature T-lymphocyte cells that were attuned to a particular type of skin cancer. Then, with the use of the “Yamanaka factors,” the researchers were able to regress the mature T-lymphocyte cells into programmed iPSCs that would develop into activated cancer-specific T-lymphocyte cells.
The Yamanaka factors were discovered by Shinya Yamanaka, a 2012 Nobel Prize winner, when he started working with adult skin cells. He realized that it was possible to regress these adult cells back to become iPSCs using four pieces of DNA (the Yamanaka factors). These specially programmed iPSCs are unique in comparison to other stem cells used in the treatment of cancer because 1) they will develop to become cancer-killing cells where some other regular stem cells might have not, and 2) they have a potential similar to that of embryonic stem cells, which can develop into any cell in the body, meaning they’re more easily programmed to kill cancer cells and they have more powerful potential .
Other Important Information
Clinics offering stem cell therapy:
The clinic has locations in the United States as well, but its cancer treatment program is only offered in Germany (although it is available to US patients).
San Diego, CA
This clinic has come under fire by the FDA, but it is one of few clinics in the US that offers stem cell therapy as a standalone cancer treatment.
This clinic offers some patients stem cell therapy as a cancer treatment. They don’t mention cancer as one of the diseases that they treat regularly, but it appears the clinic has done some studies on stem cells as a treatment for cancer.
This company manufactures stem cell products for the use of cancer and other diseases. It’s unclear whether this company administers stem cell treatment or if they just manufacture the treatments.
 Sachan, Anjula; Singh, Sarvesh; Shankar, Pratap; Singh, Dheeraj Kumar; Nath, Rajendra; Sachan, Amod Kumar; Dixit, Rakesh Kumar (2015). Stem Cell Therapy: Cancer Treatment. Retrieved May 15, 2018 from: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/281523189_Stem_cell_therapy_for_cancer_treatment
 Texas A&M University (2015). Can stem cells cause and cure cancer? Retrieved May 15, 2018 from: https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/08/150812151249.htm
 Ahmed, Shamshad (2017). Could Your Child’s Stem Cells Hold the Key to Curing Cancer? Retrieved May 15, 2018 from: https://www.smartcells.com/baby/b/childs-stem-cells-hold-key-curing-cancer/
 Koerth-Baker, Maggie (2008). Stem Cells Might Cause Cancer. Retrieved May 15, 2018 from: https://www.livescience.com/2547-stem-cells-cancer.html
 Sifferlin, Alexandra (2017). FDA Cracks Down on Stem Cell Clinics but Patients Are Still at Risk. Retrieved May 16, 2018 from: http://time.com/4920259/fda-crackdown-stem-cell-clinics/
 N.A. (2015). How your cells cure cancer. Retrieved May 16, 2018 from: http://www.urthecure.com.au/how-your-cells-cure-cancer/
 N.A. (2018). FAQs: What is the process and how long does it take? Retrieved May 16, 2018 from: https://stemcellstransplantinstitute.com/faqs/#1516724856449-dea03265-9307
 Paddock, Catherine Ph.D. (2013). Cancer Killing Stem Cells Could Be Used to Treat Cancer. Retrieved May 16, 2018 from: https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/254609.php
 The American Cancer Society (2016). Types of Stem Cell Transplants for Cancer Treatment. Retrieved May 18, 2018 from: https://www.cancer.org/treatment/treatments-and-side-effects/treatment-types/stem-cell-transplant/types-of-transplants.html
 Tan, LTH; Ong, KL (2002). The Impact of Medical Technology on Healthcare Today. Retrieved May 3, 2018 from: http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/102490790200900410
 Pancreatic Cancer UK (2018). Stem cell therapy for pancreatic cancer. Retrieved May 22, 2018 from: https://www.pancreaticcancer.org.uk/research/about-our-research/our-research-projects/improving-chances-of-treatment-success/stem-cell-therapy/
 N.A. (n.d.). What is the difference between totipotent, pluripotent, multipotent, and unipotent? Retrieved May 22, 2018 from: https://stemcell.ny.gov/faqs/what-difference-between-totipotent-pluripotent-and-multipotent