Stem Cell Transplant as a Life-Saving Treatment for Cancer

Treatment for Cancer

Almost 2 million people are diagnosed with a new case of cancer each year in the US. While chemotherapy and radiation have shown impressive results in cancer patients, they are nonselective in destroying cells at the treatment site, healthy or not. This puts extra strain on the body as it attempts to rebuild healthy cells and tissue, while still fighting against any remaining cancerous cells.

Stem cell transplants restore blood-forming stem cells to the bone marrow, allowing them to replace the cells killed by chemotherapy and radiation. These blood-forming stem cells will differentiate into other types of blood cells, mainly:

  • White blood cells that fight infection
  • Red blood cells that carry oxygen
  • Platelets which help with blood clotting

Having all types of blood cells is critical to staying as healthy as possible during cancer treatments. While stem cell transplants are still being researched for many types of cancer, they have already been proven effective in patients with:

  • Leukemia
  • Lymphoma
  • Neuroblastoma
  • Multiple Myeloma

However, stem cells rarely attack cancerous cells directly. Stem cells work indirectly by helping the body produce its own blood cells again, which fight the cancerous cells, supply healthy cells with oxygen, and prevent excessive bleeding. However, in some cases of leukemia and multiple myeloma, stem cells from a donor have been observed attacking a tumor left after chemotherapy and radiation treatment. This is known as graft-versus-tumor.

So, where do the stem cells used in transplants come from? Stem cells may be harvested from:

  • Your own body, known as an autologous transplant
  • Your identical twin, known as a syngeneic transplant
  • A carefully matched donor, known as an allogeneic transplant
  • Banked umbilical cord blood

Harvesting stem cells from a person is a fairly quick procedure that can often be done in your oncologist’s office or a nearby transplant center. Stem cells are typically harvested from the hip bone, tested for compatibility with the intended recipient, and frozen until needed. For stem cells from umbilical cord blood, the cord blood is tested, frozen, and banked in a secure facility soon after the birth of an infant. It is ideal for the patient to have their own cord blood to use for the transplant, but cord blood from a donor is also acceptable as long as it is vigilantly matched with the patient. When the patient is ready for the transplant, the stem cells are thawed and administered via IV to the bloodstream. The cells then travel to the bone marrow, where they replace damaged cells and begin the process of differentiation into blood cells. The entire process can take over a year from harvest to reach its maximum effect.

Your oncologist will monitor your blood counts frequently after a stem cell transplant. Autologous transplant patients will be monitored for several months while recipients of an allogeneic or syngeneic transplant will require up to two years of follow-up to ensure the stem cells do not cause a life-threatening condition known as graft-versus-host. In graft-versus-host, the donated stem cells recognize the existing cells in your body as foreign and attack them. Patients who experience graft-versus-host will require medications to suppress their immune response or will risk damage to many-body systems.

Stem cell transplantation is truly a miracle of modern medicine and maybe what finally leads us to a cure for cancer. Stem cell transplants are helping oncology patients improve their quality of life by helping the body heal itself after aggressive cancer treatments. As research into the astounding effects of stem cell transplantation continues, we expect a significant expansion of treatments involving the use of stem cells for cancer and other diseases. To find a medical professional that provides stem cell transplants in your area, visit and use our convenient search tool.

Mira Swave, MD

Contributor at Regenerative Medicine Now

Mira Swave, M.D. is a specialist in the field of Regenerative Medicine.
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