Stem cells are the body’s natural ‘renew and repair’ cells. When someone develops a severe inflammatory bowel disease like Crohn’s, the body’s immune system starts to attack itself. Transplanting stem cells may help people with the disease by encouraging the immune system to “reset” itself.
In essence, stem cell treatment involves wiping out the body’s immune system and replacing it with stem cells harvested from your own bone marrow. The aim is to restart your immune system and encourage the transplanted stem cells to multiply.
Crohn’s disease is a chronic inflammatory condition of the intestinal tract. It is a lifelong condition that can have a significant impact on quality of life. Among the symptoms associated with the disease are:
- persistent diarrhoea
- rectal bleeding
- abdominal pain and cramps
The normal treatment for Crohn’s is immunosuppressive drugs but not all patients respond to them and some patients stop responding after a while.
Despite some tabloid press reports suggesting that stem cell treatment is a miracle cure for Crohn’s disease, the reality is far more complex.
Crohn’s and Colitis UK suggests that the treatment is risky and more research is needed to see if the risks can be reduced to a reasonable level.
Stem cell transplants showed some level of effectiveness for the most resistant cases of Crohn’s disease. However, the treatment carried a serious risk of infection and other side effects.
A team of researchers led by Christopher Hawkey, professor of gastroenterology at Queen’s Medical Centre in Nottingham, studied a group of 45 patients with Crohn’s disease. Some were given stem cell transplants while others continued with standard medical care.
Researchers followed the patients for a year and published their findings in the Journal of the American Medical Association in December 2015. The report concluded that:
- 61% of patients in the transplant group had been able to discontinue active treatment in the preceding three months compared with 23% in the group receiving the usual form of treatment for Crohn’s.
- A year on there was no significant statistical difference in the proportion of patients whose disease was in remission compared between the two groups.
- 76 serious adverse events occurred in transplant patients, mostly infections. This compared to 38 in patients receiving conventional treatments. One transplant patient died.
Researchers concluded that stem cell transplant is probably the most effective treatment for Crohn’s disease at present but also the most toxic.
It is not recommended for widespread use but may be a risk worth taking for patients with the most resistant case of the disease for whom other treatment options had run out.
More research studies are needed, with both Crohn’s and Colitis UK and the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation of America urging extreme caution.