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Stem Cells

A reader of this blog recently sent me information about a clinical trial involving stem cells as a treatment for rheumatoid arthritis. This prompted me to investigate further.

The American National Institutes of Health has a great descriptive website on stem cells. Stem cells are of interest to researchers since they are able to grow into a variety of different types of cells. They are proposed to be used for cell therapy – cells injected into a patient to impact a process, and regenerative therapy – cells used to regrow or repair damaged tissue. They are theorized to have great potential but that potential has been sought without much success for many years.

There is also a controversy with stem cells having to do with the harvesting of stem cells from embryonic tissue. This harvesting is typically done in vitro meaning that embryos are fertilized and grown in a lab. For those who believe life begins at conception, such harvesting is repugnant. The other type of stem cell harvesting is from adult tissue. Adult harvested stem cells can come from a variety of tissues.

The clinical trial in question is from a company called TiGenix which is a European cell therapy company based in Belgium. They only use adult stem cells harvested from fat or adipose tissue. They claim that their stem cells are less likely to result in immune system reactions resulting in rejection of the cells by the patient. Their stem cell Cx611 was used in a Phase II clinical trial to investigate safety and efficacy for rheumatoid arthritis.  One interesting aspect of this particular clinical trial is that they used patients with “refractory” RA – patients who failed to respond to biologic treatments. The patients receiving the stem cell treatment displayed lower disease activity than those receiving a placebo and safety data was positive. Here is a link to the press release and a link to a detailed presentation about the company’s foray into stem cell research for autoimmune diseases. The stem cells are theorized to impact the biological processes involved with RA induced inflammation and tissue damage. In summarizing the clinical trial, they stated,

“These results are remarkable, as they constitute the first ever signal of clinical activity of a cell therapy in RA. Moreover, this was achieved in the probably most refractory RA patient population ever evaluated in clinical studies.”

Check out this recent blog post from Diana at My RA Diary for a more detailed explanation of stem cell research and RA. In her post, she does an excellent job of outlining the potential of stem cells as a treatment. She cites research and posts some nice videos and diagrams.

It is exciting that researchers are investigating stem cell therapy as a potential treatment for RA. I suspect that we are years away from knowing if it will become a reality. But the Phase II clinical trial conducted in Europe is a promising step in the right direction.

Creative Commons Photo Credit: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Human_embryonic_stem_cells_only_A.png
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