Dear Dr. Mahler:
I have been reading that stem cell treatment can repair the damage in my lungs caused by emphysema. What are your thoughts on this? I am 69 year old, and have been told that my COPD is stage 4. I use three different inhalers and oxygen at a setting of 2 when I do things, but not at rest. I am starting to feel desperate about my breathing. Thanks.
Catherine from Reno, NV
Your question is quite interesting, and a few patients in my practice have asked me the same thing. I will try to explain what are stem cells without being too technical.
Stem cells are unique because they can develop into any type of tissue in the human body.
As they have regenerative properties, stem cells offer hope for curing a variety of diseases including emphysema and scarring in the lung (fibrosis). There are two types of stem cells – one is called embryonic because they are found in embryos and the other is called adult because they are found in the umbilical cord, placenta, blood, bone marrow, skin, and other tissues. Large numbers of stem cells are needed to repair damaged tissue.
Stem cells can become any tissue in the body
Embryonic stem cells are grown in a culture medium where they divide and multiply. However, adult stem cells have difficulty dividing once they are removed from the human body. Currently, scientists are trying to find better ways to grow adult stem cells in cell culture and to manipulate them into specific types of cells that have the ability to treat injury and disease.
For stem cell therapy to be useful to treat COPD, millions of stem cells are needed to be implanted into a specific part of the body, such as the lungs. To make millions of cells, a process called manipulation is required. However, the Food and Drug Administration considers that manipulation of these cells is equivalent to a prescription medication, and therefore the process must be carefully regulated.
Without going into detail, there are potential risks of stem cell therapy that need further study.
In summary, the use of stem cells for treating COPD has great appeal. However, there is very little known about short and long term effects. At the present, there are a few approved clinical trials (studies) in the United States and Canada evaluating stem cell therapy. They can be found on the website of the National Institutes of Health at www.clinicaltrials.gov.
Because of potential for harm, the lack of any proven benefits so far, and the high fees that are typically charged, I advise caution before further consideration of stem cell therapy for your COPD. Hopefully, the medical profession will learn more about this unique treatment.
Regarding your breathing, are you under the care of a pulmonary specialist? If not, I encourage to ask your doctor to refer you a pulmonologist to make sure that you are receiving optimal medical care for your COPD.
Donald A. Mahler, M.D.
At top, embryonic stem cell colonies. At bottom, nerve cells.