Stem cell transplantation is a medical procedure used to transfer healthy replacement cells into parts of the body that have unhealthy or poorly functioning stem cells. Stem cells are master cells that have the ability to divide and create new cells with special functions, such as blood or brain cells. Today, the most well-known type of stem cell transplantation is the bone marrow transplant, which helps a person's body make healthy blood cells after his bone marrow has stopped producing them efficiently. Scientists are also researching other ways to use stem cells to treat diseases and save lives.
Stem cell transplants are often referred to as bone marrow transplantation or umbilical cord blood transplantation since these are the most frequently used stem cell therapies. Sometimes stem cell transplantation is also called autologous stem cell transplantation, which means the transplant cells are taken from the patient’s own body. If a stem cell transplant uses cells that are donated, it is referred to as allogenic stem cell transplantation.
Patients undergo stem cell transplantation when their own stem cells have stopped functioning as they should. This may occur because of damage caused by diseases, such as cancer, or even because of the treatment that is used for a disease. Many people think stem cell transplants are only used in the treatment of cancerous disease, but this is a misconception. Stem cell transplants can also help individuals struggling with certain non-cancerous diseases, such as type 1 diabetes.
Leukemia is a cancerous disease in which a patient may benefit from stem cell transplantation. For leukemia patients, stem cell transplants help to rid the bone marrow of unhealthy cells and replace them with new, healthy stem cells. These cells may also help kill leftover cancer cells that remain in the bone marrow after treatment.
Sometimes stem cell transplants are helpful for treating a condition called aplastic anemia. This condition is marked by bone marrow that fails to produce the amount of blood cells the patient needs for good health. If the patient undergoes stem cell transplantation, his unhealthy cells are destroyed and healthy stem cells are used to replace them. When the procedure is successful, the new stems cells begin their normal functions in the body.
Though stem cell transplants can be life-saving, they also carry risks. Sometimes donated stem cells actually attack the patient’s body and cause everything from nausea and vomiting to long-term health problems. Other risks include the development of organ and blood vessel damage, cataracts, infection, and stem cell rejection. Some people even develop new cancers after treatment.