What Is a Colony-Stimulating Factor?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A colony-stimulating factor is a compound that can bind with hematopoietic stem cells in the bone marrow to trigger them to produce more blood cells. The name is a reference to the colonies of cells in culture used to test pharmaceutical compounds. A researcher can fix cells on a plate and add compounds to compare growth and determine which compound is the most effective. There are several medical uses for colony-stimulating factors, and several drug companies make them.

Scientist with beakers
Scientist with beakers

Treatment with a colony-stimulating factor can increase the numbers of many different kinds of blood cells, including macrophages and granulocytes. The name of the medication often references the kind of cell it is supposed to affect. A doctor can select the most appropriate medication on the basis of the patient's medical history and specific needs.

These compounds are specialized proteins. A patient usually takes them by injection and may self-inject at home or receive injections in a clinical setting from a care provider. Before a patient starts colony-stimulating factor therapy, the doctor may request a blood test to check on baseline levels of blood cells in the body before treatment. As treatment progresses, follow-up testing can show how well the patient responded.

One use for these drugs is in cancer treatment. Chemotherapy agents infamously strip the body of blood cells and can cause anemia and immunocompromise. A doctor may prescribe a colony-stimulating factor along with chemotherapy to boost the production of blood cells. This can prevent some chemotherapy side effects and increase the chances of surviving treatment. The drug does not have any direct impact on the cancer, and the patient still needs to take cancer medications.

These drugs are also used to prepare patients for transplants of hematopoietic stem cells or specific kinds of blood cells. In leukapheresis, for example, patients can donate white blood cells for future transplant. The colony-stimulating factor can increase the number of cells to make more available for harvest. This treatment may be used in leukemia patients to harvest healthy cells, provide the treatment to kill the rogue cancer cells, and then return the patient's own white blood cells to the body for recovery.

Side effects of colony-stimulating factor treatment can include bone pain and fatigue. For some patients, the treatment is not as effective as desired. These patients may develop fevers, swelling, and other signs of infection and immune malfunction. It is important to discuss side effects with a doctor to determine if they are a cause for concern.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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