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Understanding stem cell cancer treatment

May 11, 2018

Cancer is a deadly disease which is the top cause of death world-wide. It is caused due to an uncontrolled growth and proliferation of abnormal cells in a specific part of the body. The cancer cells can invade and deform or decay surrounding healthy and important cells, including organs and tissues or muscles. It can also spread from the primary site to other parts of the body. This process is called metastasis.

The causative agent or factor may be toxic substance like tobacco-smoke, biological, environmental, genetic, or lifestyle-related factors etc. The disease becomes severe if the causative agent successfully overpowers our immune system.

Stem cell cancer treatment

It is also known as peripheral blood cell transplant. In stem cell cancer treatment, the doctor uses transplanted ‘stem cells’ to treat certain types of cancers. Cancers like myeloma, leukemia, and lymphoma can be treated through this process.

Understanding Stem cells

Stem cells are biological cells from which various different specialized cells of the body can be generated. They are produced in the bone marrow. They have the capacity to differentiate into red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets. Stem cells help a person to grow and survive. They can be extracted from a donor or from your own blood.

Sources of stem cells

Stem cells may be derived from several sources:

  • Embryonic stem cells – They are the most potent types of cells as they can give rise to almost any particular cell in the human body.
  • Adult stem cells – Adult tissues like bone marrow, brain, and blood harbor adult stem cells. Their capacity to differentiate into other specialized body cells is limited compared to embryonic stem cells.
  • Cord blood stem cells– They are derived from cord blood and are considered powerful to treat several complicated diseases.


Stem cell transplant

Bone marrow is a part of our bones that makes new blood cells. Marrow is the soft, spongy tissue that is found inside the bones. It generates stem cells also known as hematopoietic stem cells. These stem cells have the power to develop more blood cells or several other types of cells.

  • When a person has cancer and is undertaking radiation or chemotherapy, his bone marrow is diseased and stem cells are destroyed. This reduces the person’s immune system as the body cannot make blood and other components without using stem cells.
  • In such cases, healthy stem cells need to be transplanted to replace the diseased stem cells in the bone marrow.

Thus a stem cell transplant-

  • stimulates bone marrow growth
  • suppresses the disease by increasing immunity
  • reduces the possibility of going into remission
  • Increases the possibility of administering increased doses of chemotherapy and radiotherapy
  • Improves possibility of cure or longer disease-free survival


Types of stem cell transplants

Stem cell transplants can be classified into two types:

  • Autologous(Auto) Stem Cell Transplant

This transplant is conducted using your own stem cells. It is commonly used for the treatment of myeloma and lymphoma. This reduces to chances of rejection of donor’s cells or the possibility of graft-versus-host disease. The process can be quicker with fewer side-effects.

How It Works: The doctor collects, freezes and stores your own stem cells. The desired treatment of chemotherapy or radiotherapy is then administered. Following that, stem cells are then thawed and transplanted back into you. It is called as a tandem or double autologous stem cell transplant. It sometimes needs to be performed more than once.

  • Allogeneic Stem Cell Transplant

In this transplant, the stem cells are sourced from a donor. Allogenic stem cell transplant is found to work in cases of leukemia, aggressive lymphomas and autologous transplants that have failed.

How It Works: Stem cells are retrieved from a donor. These stem cells are matched with the patient to check anomalies if any. Post that, the patient undergoes the desired treatment of chemotherapy or radiation therapy which is followed by infusing the donor stem cells into the patient through an IV line.

Side-effects of stem cell transplants

They depend on the type and strength of high-dose treatment given to the patient. Commonly observed side effects are:

  • Increased risk of infection
  • Bleeding due to low blood counts
  • Nausea
  • Anemia
  • Reduced appetite
  • A sore mouth
  • Hair loss
  • Tiredness and fatigue
  • Graft failure



Undergoing a stem cell transplant can be a cumbersome process. You need to constantly monitor your blood levels and keep a check on your general health. High side-effects are observed when your blood count is least. As your blood count gradually improves, the side-effects also reduce. Your doctor discharges you from the hospital once your blood count reaches a safe level.

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