As the body ages, it’s only natural that some of its processes should break down. Humans become clumsier, stiffer, their reaction times slower, their senses duller. This is often due to the fact that nerves in the extremities grow less sensitive over time, transmitting messages to the brain more slowly and feeling less acutely – a condition known as peripheral neuropathy or simply neuropathy.
While some of that is normal, especially in the golden years, neuropathy often manifests in people much too young – in their 30s, 40s, or 50s – as a result of a disease such as diabetes or autoimmune issues. Unfortunately, the condition can significantly hamper a person’s quality of life, making mobility difficult and limiting everyday activities.
The good news? Neuropathy may have a cure, or at least a solid treatment, on the horizon. Stem cells show great promise for a wide variety of conditions, and nerve damage is the latest of these. To see how it can help, it’s important to understand what stem cell treatment is, what neuropathy is and what causes it, and how the former can address the latter.
In this article:
- What Is Stem Cell Treatment?
- What Is Neuropathy?
- What Causes Neuropathy?
- How Does Stem Cell Treatment Work?
- What Are the Risks?
- How Close Are We to Viable Treatment?
Neuropathy and Stem Cell Therapy | The Promising Connection
What Is Stem Cell Treatment?
The body is made of trillions of tissue-specific cells, making up organs, skin, muscle, bone, nerves, and all other tissue. Some of these can renew indefinitely, such as blood cells. Others, however, cannot replace themselves: Once they have divided a certain number of times or become damaged, they’re dead for good. That goes for nerves and brain tissue, for example.
There is, however, an answer. The developing embryo uses stem cells, or “master cells” capable of differentiating into any kind of tissue in the human body, to transform one fertilized egg into a fully functional baby human. While adult humans lack these “pluripotent” stem cells that can transform into anything, they do have “multipotent” stem cells, which are tissue-specific master cells (such as blood cells).
By harvesting these multipotent stem cells from blood or fat tissue, scientists can induce the cells to become pluripotent, meaning they’re now capable of becoming any tissue in the human body. Essentially, researchers have figured out how to reverse-engineer adult stem cells to become all-powerful embryonic cells. This means stem cells have a huge range of possible uses.
In other cases, multipotent stem cells alone are enough to heal some parts of the human body—such as nerves.
What Is Neuropathy?
Peripheral neuropathy manifests in a number of ways. It causes pain, weakness, and tingling in affected areas, making it hard to lift objects, grasp items, walk competently, and more. Typically it affects the hands and feet most strongly, though it can also cause symptoms in the arms, legs, and face. Not only does it affect motor coordination, but it also makes it hard for the body to sense the environment, including temperature, pain, vibration, and touch.
A more serious manifestation of the disease is autonomic neuropathy, which influences more than the periphery of the body. It also messes with blood pressure, bladder and bowel function, digestion, sweating, and heart rate. Polyneuropathy is when the condition starts at the periphery of the body but gradually spreads inward.
What Causes Neuropathy?
Diabetic neuropathy is the most well-known incarnation of this disease. It is a result of high glucose and fat levels in the blood, which can damage nerves. Other causes include:
- Autoimmune issues
- Genetic disorders
- Medication reactions
- Nutrient deficiency
- Pressure on the nerve
- Bone marrow trouble
- Other diseases
If the bad news is there are so many potential causes of neuropathy, the good news is stem cell treatments have the potential to address all of them.
How Does Stem Cell Treatment Work?
In the case of neuropathy, stem cell treatment is simpler than in other conditions. Mesenchymal stem cells (certain types of multipotent stem cells) release neuroprotective and neuroregenerative factors, so when they are injected into the bloodstream they can begin to rebuild nerves and undo the damage caused by the disease. Also, because these stem cells replicate indefinitely, they will offer these benefits for the rest of the patient’s life.
The basic process is that scientists harvest these cells from the patient (autologous transplant) or from a donor (allogeneic transplant), then cultivate them until they reach certain levels before reinjecting them back into the patient. The stem cells, with the help of hormones and growth factors, seek out and repair the damage done by neuropathy.
What Are the Risks?
The main risks to stem cell treatment include reaction to the injection. In an autologous transplant, the patient may react to the preservatives and other chemicals used by way of necessity. In an allogeneic transplant, the patient may exhibit an immune response to donor cells, or vice versa – with the donor cells seeing the patient’s body as an “invader” and attacking it. All of the above reactions can prove minor or, on the other end of the spectrum, fatal.
The severity of the problem will, therefore, dictate whether or not it is worth moving forward. Note that those who do choose to pursue the treatment often have extremely good results.
How Close Are We to Viable Treatment?
Unlike some other stem cell treatments, which remain in preliminary stages, stem cell therapy for neuropathy has thus far received serious attention. However, the small sample size and difficult conditions of clinical trials make it hard to say yet whether this treatment will become widespread or receive FDA approval. Other studies have demonstrated more significant results in the treatment of facial pain and may pave the way for future neuropathy treatments using stem cells.
For now, those suffering from neuropathy should seek the advice of a physician. If there are clinical trials available nearby, that’s the place to start. It’s possible to seek stem cell therapy through a clinic as well as through a clinical study or research institution, but make sure to research the provider thoroughly. With stem cells becoming such a relevant approach to medical conditions of all kinds, it’s not safe to conclude that all providers are equally experienced or effective.
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