Are Stem Cells Good Or Bad? Myths About Stem Cells, Debunked

As expectant  parents, you must be receiving tons of advice. From how to buy diapers in bulk to the best pediatrician in your city to health insurance, there are so many things expectant parents have to think about so they can be prepared for the arrival of their little one.

You might have been told about preserving your baby’s umbilical cord blood due to the many possibilities that the stem cells in it offer. Along with the benefits, you might have also heard about the downside of stem cell banking. Like every other good thing, stem cell therapies too have their downside but the benefits may outweigh them. However, it’s always best to understand the full picture before making a decision that you can only make once.

A good place to start would be to understand what stem cells are before diving into the good or bad about them.

What’s The Deal with Stem Cells?

Stem cells, often studied for their use in regenerative medicine, are immature unspecialised cells that can assume the form of other specialised cells. Regenerative medicine includes treatments that help our natural healing processes work more rapidly and effectively.

Stem cells are “unprogrammed cells” in the human body that can divide continuously and change into other types of cells. Stem cells can become bone, muscle, cartilage and other types of specialised cells (like blood), and thus have the yet-to-be-discovered potential to treat disorders like Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and diabetes. They can be found in different bodily tissues including blood, bone marrow, umbilical cord blood, placental tissue, skin and muscle.

Stem cells are an approved form of treatment for over 80 disorders, mainly of the blood and immune system, but there are limitations to what they can and cannot be used to treat.

Theoretically, stem cells also have the potential to help develop replacement organs, repair aged cells in the body thus preventing or delaying organ failure, and to produce extended longevity. The use of stem cells for various disorders and therapies is still being studied under clinical trials, making them more of an investment for the long run.

Are Stem Cells Good or Bad? What Should I Know About Them?

Lots of expectant parents get advice about banking their baby’s umbilical cord blood, as it is rich in stem cells. At the same time, you may be filled with doubts about whether this is safe, useful or even a good idea. Most of the questions about whether stem cells are good or bad arise due to the many myths surrounding stem cell collection, therapies and their usage. Arming yourself with facts can help you make the right choice for your family. So let’s look at some myths about stem cells and the full story behind them!

Myth 1: Stem Cell Collection Is Not Safe

Stem cells are mainly collected from blood or bone marrow in case of adult donors, or from the umbilical cord blood right after birth. The collection of umbilical cord blood is entirely safe and painless for both the mother and the baby as it is conducted after birth. Umbilical cord blood is the main source of stem cells for most of the approved treatments with stem cells. Embryonic stem cells, on the other hand, are collected from embryos that are created in laboratory settings, not from embryos inside the maternal body.

Myth 2: Stem Cell Banking is Not Legal

This is partially true but that doesn’t mean you can’t bank your baby’s stem cells. In India, the ICMR  (Indian Council of Medical Research) banned the banking of stem cells in 2017, with the exception of cord blood banking - a process conducted after birth with no side effects for the mother or the baby1. So as parents, you still have the right to decide if you want to preserve or donate your baby’s umbilical cord blood after birth. However, this decision cannot be made at the last minute.

Myth 3: Stem Cell Therapy is Unsafe

The main risk associated with any kind of transplantation is the risk of rejection of cells by the recipient’s body. Stem cells have an added advantage over other kinds of transplants, since they are more immature cells, making them adapt more easily and reducing their chances of rejection. Stem cells from umbilical cord blood are believed to be safer than stem cells from other sources for this reason. They are less likely to cause rejection or graft-versus-host disease owing to them being more immature. With cord blood, you need a HLA match (a kind of tissue matching) of just 3 out of 6, whereas with other sources, you would need a HLA match of 5 out of 6 or higher. This is one of the reasons cord blood banking is recommended to expectant parents.

Myth 4: Stem Cell Therapy is Unproven

Hematopoietic stem cells, the stem cells that have been approved by the FDA for transplantation, are a proven safe and effective form of treatment for over 80 disorders, including leukemias, lymphomas, certain blood disorders and inherited immune system disorders. Hematopoietic stem cells are abundant in cord blood, which can be collected safely after the birth of your baby and preserved for future use, providing an extra assurance of protecting your family’s health.

Myth 5: Stem Cells Are A Cure-All

While banking your baby’s stem cells, understand that they are not a cure to every ailment. While there is a lot of research on stem cells, very few treatments with stem cells have been proven safe and effective and, therefore, very few treatments are approved and used. Having said that, stem cells do have the potential to treat diseases long thought to be “untreatable”. However, these uses of stem cells are pending safety trials. Stem cells are great as an extra assurance for the future of your family’s health and may come in handy in finding a matching donor whenever a medical emergency arises.

Now that you have an idea of the kind of myths surrounding stem cells and the real story behind them, making your decision might become easier. It is also important to understand that there is always a chance of a child not  using their stem cells , but in case of certain unexpected illnesses, preserving stem cells can prove very beneficial. Take your doctor’s help in evaluating your family’s medical history and risks against the benefits of stem cell banking for the same - better safe than sorry. Remember that there’s always the option to donate these valuable cells to a patient who is very much in need of them.

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