Treatment for autism is an increasingly important pursuit, as the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates:
- 1 in 59 children has been identified with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) [Read article]
- Autism occurs in all racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic groups. [Read article]
- Studies in Asia, Europe, and North America have identified ASD to have a prevalence rate of between 1% and 2%. [Data table]
With autism spectrum disorder (ASD) affecting between 1-2% of the population, the condition is becoming of increasing importance and a treatment for autism is becoming a highly sought-after medical breakthrough.
In this article:
- Current and Emerging Treatments for Autism
- Stem Cell Therapy for Autism
- What Is Stem Cell Therapy?
- What Causes Autism?
- How Can Stem Cell Therapy Help Combat Autism?
- How Are Stem Cells Use for Autism Treatment?
- Are There Risks Involved?
- How Close Are We to a Treatment for Autism?
- How Much Does Stem Cell Therapy for Autism Cost?
- Enrolling in a Stem Cell Trial for Autism
Current and Emerging Treatments for Autism
While therapy, some diets, and other techniques all show promise for mitigating the effects of autism (and some swear by them), researchers have not yet come up with a “cure” for the disease. That is to say, the scientific and medical community cannot offer a definitive treatment that relieves adults or children of this condition.
However, there are many strategies for how to help individuals with ASD to improve their symptoms and maximize their potential.
According to the NIH, these strategies include:
- Behavioral management therapy
- Cognitive behavior therapy
- Early intervention
- Educational and school-based therapies
- Joint attention therapy
- Medications / Pharmaceuticals
- Nutritional therapy / Diet Modification
- Occupational and work-related therapy
- Parent-mediated therapy
- Physical therapy (PT)
- Social skills training
- Speech therapy
There are also studies underway exploring interventions ranging from hyperbaric oxygen, to administration of zinc, to drugs exhibiting anti-inflammatory properties.
Stem Cell Therapy for Autism
In addition to these strategies for managing one’s condition, stem cells for autism appear to represent an intriguing treatment approach. Several types of stem cells are now being explored for their therapeutics effects in autism.
The most promising cell types appear to be:
- Stem cells from umbilical cord blood – Scientists hypothesize that these cells may be a potent tool for generation of new blood vessel growth in the autistic brain.
- Mesenchymal stem cells (from bone marrow or fat tissue) – Research believe these cells may improve the immune de-regulation associated with autism, assisting with the intestinal symptoms and cognitive issues.
Although we are still in the early stages of research, promising clinical data is beginning to be released. As progress continues to be made with these therapies, it looks as though a real, lasting treatment for autism may be on the horizon.
To understand this new approach to autism treatment, it’s first necessary to understand stem cell therapy in its own right. Similarly, it is critical to understand autism, its theoretical causes, how stem cells could ameliorate them, and what the future looks like regarding this prospective approach.
What Is Stem Cell Therapy?
Stem cell treatments are complex, and in the case of many conditions, still theoretical. However, scientists do have a firm understanding of what stem cells are and how they work. In a nutshell, these “master cells” are undifferentiated, having the ability to turn into a wide variety of more specialized cells.
Hematopoietic stem cells, for instance, give rise to every kind of blood stem cell in our body – which is dozens. Mesenchymal stem cells are another stem cell type. This type of stem cell has an exceptional capacity to reduce inflammation, reduce fibrosis (scarring), and positively impact the immune system.
Other stem cells control other bodily tissues. These master cells are found in the heart, teeth, liver, skin, fat, and many other tissue types. With cutting-edge scientific techniques, researchers can now force those stem cells to revert to an even less differentiated state, forming what is called induced pluripotent stem cells.
These unique cells can become any tissue in the human body. If physicians could inject them into affected areas, they could (theoretically) rebuild our tissues from the ground up by repairing damaged body parts.
Stem cell therapy for autism, therefore, proposes to “rewrite” the bodily systems causing autism. To learn more about the different types of stem cells, watch this video from BioInformant.
What Causes Autism?
The causes of autism are still poorly understood and disagreed upon, but research does point to two key agents:
- Reduced oxygen levels in specific parts of the brain
- Chronic inflammation in the gut, caused by the immune system malfunction
Other potential causes include Fragile X syndrome, brain tumors, brain swelling, missing metabolic enzymes, and measles in the mother during pregnancy.
How Can Stem Cell Therapy Help Combat Autism?
Whatever the case, stem cells appear to be a promising treatment for autism. For instance, they can replace malfunctioning gut cells with healthy ones, and since stem cells can replicate indefinitely, the problem would be unlikely to recur. The same may prove true for brain cells, enzyme and hormone production systems, and more.
Additionally, certain stem cell types can reduce inflammation, and therefore, possibly, autism.
While the terminology is a bit dense, for those interested in the scientific literature, this article is an insightful read.
How Are Stem Cells Used for Autism Treatment?
Stem cells for autism are not a fully understood process. This is because the cellular mechanisms of how cells exert their effects are still being explored.
However, stem cell treatments at large have a basic sequence of events.
These steps include:
- Physicians either harvest stem cells from the patient (autologous) or take them from another patient or a blood bank (allogeneic).
- They prepare the stem cells for the patient, separating out the meaningful cells and combining them with hormones and growth factors, as necessary.
- Physicians inject or infuse the stem cells into the patient.
From there, doctors and parents watch the patient to note any improvement. In many cases, the patient needs multiple doses of stem cells to get levels high enough that the cells can do their work in affected areas.
Over time, these cells can gravitate toward the affected area, instinctively “fixing” the malfunctioning systems.
Are There Risks Involved?
As with any other medical process, stem cell autism recovery does bring some risks. Some people have reactions to the injectable fluids, as they often make use of preservatives by necessity. Other patients reject allogeneic (donated stem cells), because their body targets them as “invaders”.
Worse, some patients get attacked by donor stem cells, causing a variety of unpleasant and potentially fatal symptoms. This condition is known as graft-versus-host disease (GVHD.
Overall, however, many people find the success levels high enough to warrant risking these negative outcomes. Especially in cases where autism is so overwhelming that it completely compromises the family or child, it may be worth it.
How Close Are We to This Treatment for Autism?
Thankfully, the research community has heard the calls for autism clinical trials involving stem cells.
Stories demonstrating the power of stem cells for autism have prompted research institutions to undertake trials determining how to treat autism in the future.
Led by the world-renowned researcher Dr. Joanne Kurtzberg, Duke University Medical Center is conducting clinical trials to evaluate how umbilical cord blood cells may improve autism symptoms.
Her research group is exploring both the use of autologous (patient-derived) and allogeneic (donor-derived) umbilical cord blood treatments.
Specifically, Dr. Kurtzberg’s team:
- Completed a landmark clinical trial: “Autologous Umbilical Cord Blood Infusion for Children With Autism Spectrum Disorder.”
- Completed a Phase 2 clinical trial: “Cord Blood Infusion for Children With Autism Spectrum Disorder.”
In the video below, Dr Joanne Kurtzberg discusses a Phase II clinical trial by Duke University. In it, she describes a family whose son experienced symptomatic improvements.
At least two other clinical trials are exploring the use of cord blood stem cells as a potential treatment for autism, including:
- Autologous Cord Blood Stem Cells for Autism (Sponsored by Sutter Health)
- Safety and Efficacy of Stem Cell Therapy in Patients With Autism (Sponsored by
Shenzhen Beike Bio-Technology Co.)
An additional 21 clinical trials are exploring the use of other types of stem cells for the treatment of ASD.
How Much Does Stem Cell Therapy for Autism Cost?
Parents can also explore stem cell clinics that offer treatments without U.S. FDA approval, although insurance companies typically don’t cover these medical expenses.
Unfortunately, most of the research conducted so far has focused on autistic children, leaving treatment options for adults more limited. For adult patients with autism, stem cell treatment providers may prove more accessible.
On average, stem cell treatments for autism cost USD $12,000 – 18,000. Travel costs are often incurred as well, because treatments may be provided outside the United States. This is because the U.S. FDA does not permit the expansion of stem cell populations within a lab prior to administering them to a patient.
For patients with severe autism, higher doses of stem cells may be required. Examples of countries whose regulatory policies allow stem cell expansion include Mexico, the Caymen Islands, the Bahama Islands, and India, among many others.
To explore clinical trials for autism, use this link to visit Clinical Trials.gov. This global registry, supported by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), lists the majority of autism trials worldwide.
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