What Are Stem Cells & What Are They Used For?
Autism, more correctly known as Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is not a disease, like chickenpox or pneumonia, and thus, when people are diagnosed with it, there is no cure, such as antibiotics to make it go away. There are a few ways to manage the symptoms of ASD, such as traditional prescriptions of medications, though these fall more in line with anti-psychotics, rather than curatives. Other treatments are focused on behavioral therapy, teaching ASD children to manage and self-regulate their behavioral tendencies, such as learning to maintain eye contact when having conversations.
One recent development in treatments is the usage of stem cell therapy as a way to manage ASD. But what is stem cell therapy, and what do the stem cells themselves do that other forms of treatment aren’t managing? We’ll explain.
They Can Be Anything
Understanding stem cells and their incredible versatility means looking at the human reproductive process and going back to a fertilized egg in the womb. What starts as a single egg cell, fertilized by a sperm cell, develops, over the course of nine months, from one generic egg cell, into a fully-formed baby, complete with blood, lungs, a beating heart, and a brain that can think and feel. Stem cells are what make it possible for one, fertilized, undifferentiated cell, to grow into the specialized organs that make up a human.
The power of stem cells is that, unlike other cells, they are not “dedicated” to becoming just one thing. Once blood is formed, for example, if there’s any blood loss from a cut, replacement blood cells are grown from existing blood cells. Your brain can’t produce more blood cells; it can only produce more brain cells.
However, wherever stem cells go, they can program themselves to whatever is needed, even in the case of cells that aren’t reproducing correctly. This is why stem cell therapy became one of the most effective forms of treatment for certain types of cancer, such as leukemia, which is where stem cell therapy first went into widespread, medically approved practice.
The Supply Is Limited
Unfortunately, as useful as stem cells can be to the human body, beyond a certain point, they are just not that plentiful. When humans are developing in a mother’s womb, the need to develop all the specialized organs “from scratch” means that stem cells are in abundance during the pregnancy. This creates a substance that is colloquially known as “cord blood.”
Cord blood is really the various biological materials and fluids found in the placenta, which is the thin membrane that surrounds a baby during pregnancy. The cord in question refers to the umbilical cord, the direct connection the baby has to the mother, where all the nutrients required to fuel stem cell growth are transferred, while any waste material created during the pregnancy is also carried out, to prevent a toxic environment. Because of this intense flow of “biological traffic” within the umbilical cord, after birth occurs, it is the umbilical cord, with its “cord blood” that is still richly saturated in these valuable cells, which are no longer produced in such huge volume in either the mother or the child after birth has occurred.
The Post Birth Options
Just because birth has occurred and stem cells are not in “high production” anymore, that doesn’t mean that a supply of “fresh” stem cells is impossible, it’s just harder to gain access to. This is why, for example, a cut in the skin can easily heal, as the skin cells reproduce more skin, but in the case of a limb being lost to amputation, the skin, bones, muscles, and nerves cannot all regrow. There aren’t enough stem cells to do this.
After birth, people do still have some stem cells present in their body, but they are not as “versatile” as the stem cells that are produced during birth. These stem cells are stored in “out of the way places,” such as the bone marrow, meaning that retrieving them, while possible, is a much more complex and labor-intensive process than retrieving stem cells from cord blood. It’s possible, however, to modify bone marrow stem cells in the lab to become more “pluripotent,” though still not as flexible as cord cells. This smaller quantity of stem cells can be extracted from areas such as bone marrow, the brain, and the liver.
It’s important to note that it’s not just any stem cell that can be used in stem cell therapy. In the same way that a blood transfusion or organ transplant must be compatible with the patient; the same is true for stem cells. This is why cord blood from a child’s birth, or stem cells retrieved from a person’s bone marrow, guarantee 100% acceptance and compatibility with a patient while attempting to use random samples can result in rejection, and possibly even harm to the patient.