Stem cell therapy — all you need to know

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We hear from Precious Cells CEO Dr Husein Salem on the repair, regeneration and engineering potential of an exciting — and relatively new — therapy

We very often fear what we fail to understand and, nowhere is this more evident than in the world of medicine.

Sometimes it takes a while for the general public to catch up and accept new procedures that may hold the key to improving health outcomes for future generations. Seemingly early in their development, they can baffle us and feel beyond belief and understanding.

Sceptical beasts that we are, we often like to apply the ‘wait and see’ approach to new cosmetic treatments, and will only embrace change in science and medicine once we have hard evidence from governing bodies of the marvellous opportunities clinical innovations can offer.

Stem cell technology — once shrouded in mystery, hearsay and a large helping of fanciful media cynicism — is now a 21st-century reality, especially for those who have invested time, passion and learning into creating potential life-changing opportunities to many families.

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Stem cell treatment is best described as personalised regenerative medicine that uses harvested cells to treat a wide range of illnesses.

Leading the way in the UK is Dr Husein Salem, a moleculer biologist and a strong advocate of the technology as far back as 2010 when the process was in its infancy and much maligned by the world’s press. He founded the company Precious Cells, having spent more than a decade in academic research, focusing on novel cellular therapies for a number of diseases, with particular emphasis on cardiac and neurological disorders.

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Since then, says Husein, research data has grown exponentially.

It was only as recently as 1998 that scientists first learnt to isolate human embryonic stem cells and grow them in the lab, with a view to using them to repair damaged tissue or even create new organs.

But scientists hit a brick wall within three years of the embryonic stages of their research, grinding to a near halt as a result — with their work often attracting controversy and scare-mongering headline grabbing stories in certain newspapers.

Husein puts the blame firmly at the door of the US president at the time George Bush. In 2001, the Bush administration slashed important funding for any relevant research that was using stem cells derived from human embryos, because the technology required the destruction of human life.

‘At its core, this issue forces us to confront fundamental questions about the beginnings of life and the ends of science,’ Bush said at the time.

With religious fervour ruling clinical reasoning, it promptly led to widespread fear and general consumer concern.But key stem cell research has since gone on to revolutionise the treatment of a plethora of conditions since the relaxation of the rules, including Parkinson’s disease, macular degeneration, spinal cord injury, stroke, burns, heart disease, diabetes, osteoarthritis, and rheumatoid arthritis and so on.

But, Husein believes the West continues to lag behind other countries in the Far East, such as China, in its stem cell innovation.

New uses for stem cell therapy are reported weekly. Only last month, scientists at Manchester University, who have developed stem cell gene therapy to reverse the fatal childhood illness of Sanfilippo disease (for which there is currently no effective treatment) secured a deal to work with a new therapeutics company to test it in a human trial.

Athletes commonly use stem cell therapy, attracted by the regenerative potential it has for common injuries, and it is increasingly playing an important role within sports medicine.

Husein says: ‘What we now see almost daily is a list of uses of adult stem cell technologies, which means people are much more amenable to this therapy — and are talking about it positively.’

Husein believes a watershed moment in its timeline was the Berlin Patient case that set the world alight and woke us up to a new era where people could see that ‘a lot of good’ could be made from the technology.

In a nutshell, Timothy Ray Brown — long known only as the Berlin Patient — had HIV for 12 years before he became the first person in the world to be cured of the infection following a stem cell transplant in 2007.

Although the case silenced the cynics with its promising and unplanned for therapeutic implications, it didn’t the various religious sectors who continue to this day to be adverse to any life-saving possibilities.

Interestingly, Husein suggests that, free of the constant onslaught from Christian lobbyists, the Far East continues to innovate, sans the shackles we have here.

He explains: ‘The Far East is developing far faster in terms of treatment applications and in the UK and US we are falling behind in the commercialisation of stem cell therapy.

‘Here, there are strong regulatory requirements, and rightly so, but they hamper our development, whereas the Far East is far more aggressive in their innovation.

‘It’s a privately driven industry here too and we’re a long way off from general use within the NHS because of its cost, so this creates boundaries for some and hinders research funding, too.’

Despite this, the Mayo Clinic in the US is building a clinical database where a team of experts works round the clock researching stem cell therapy investigating how stem cells may be used to replace, repair, reprogram or renew diseased cells.

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Here in the UK, Husein is concerned of the lack of resources within the NHS., so much so that last year he set up Precious Cells Miracle, a charity organisation and sister to his company, that partners with NHS trusts in a bid to build a strong, viable public stem cell network.

Husein says: ‘Every day the restorative power of stem cells leads to further profound medical developments, yet in 2013 about 688,000 cord blood units were discarded in maternity wards across England and Wales. This, combined with the fact that only a handful of NHS Trusts currently have the facilities to offer stem cell donation, demonstrates an urgent need to put the facilities in place to build a strong, viable public stem cell network. Our partnerships with NHS Trusts make a strong contribution to this process.’

There is then a growing awareness that, in turn, should build consumer education, even if much of stem cell therapy — especially with regards to its rejuvenation properties — remains anecdotal, although the concept of tissue engineering, stem cells and 3D printing creating new organs is already taking shape.

As Husein says: ‘Google “lab-grown burger” and you’ll see what scientists have already created from bovine stem cells — stem cells can even offer a potential solution to climate change.’

For Precious Cells, it’s mostly the adult market who seek its services — although, it does store cord blood stem cell, cord tissue stem cells and dental pulp cells from babies to allow families who have a family history of certain illnesses or who anticipate future use in their lives, to store cells or tissue in case, further down the line, they or a close blood relative requires them.

According to Husein, those of us already storing stem cells for potential future use consist of ‘the curious, the early adopters and, generally, people looking to take control of their health’.

Precious Cells mitigates against any potential disasters with a disaster recovery plan that includes a reciprocal arrangement with like for like UK and European  businesses that will store cells should the unthinkable happen.

Interestingly, the two largest companies offering stem cell services here in the UK — Precious Cells being one and Bioeden, the other — are now in collaboration to satisfy the best interests of patients.

The premise of the business is a challenging one, offering as it does a security against something that hasn’t yet happened and, hopefully, never will. It’s a sound investment, an insurance if you will — but Husein feels there now needs to be a sound government investment in the process, too, if it is to catch the imagination of the UK public.

‘One hopes that the outlay never manifests into anything more than hope and promise’, he says.

From an ethical point of view, Data Protection forbids Husein and other businesses like his, monopolising on good feedback. They, therefore, cannot release information about patient successes to demonstrate the worth of the service.

Is it worth the investment, you may ask? There is obviously enough evidence to demonstrate an ever-increasing bulging portfolio of medical solutions to a wide range of serious health matters.

For £2.5k, it certainly poses a potential valuable asset to anyone’s life plan.

Embryonic stem cells are obtained from embryos or other products of conception (amniotic fluid, umbilical cord blood).

Adult stem cells are what most research has focused on for cosmetic, reconstructive or regenerative therapies. Adult stem cells act as a repair system for the body, replenishing adult tissues. There are three potential sources of adult stem cells in the body — bone marrow, fat cells and blood.

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Ask Dr Husein K Salem a question today:

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