Stem cell transplant therapy has successfully cured patients suffering from Crohn’s disease, a terrible disease that afflicts an estimated 600,000 people in North America and millions more worldwide. Success in treating Crohn’s disease is just one of a string of recent success for stem cell and related therapies. The future for tens of millions of people suffering across the globe is looking brighter everyday as an explosion in treatments and cures for disease sees no signs of abating.
Crohn’s disease is an autoimmune disease in which the body’s own immune system attacks the gastrointestinal tract, resulting in a lifetime of severe diarrhea and stomach pain for its sufferers. Severe is an understatement: for the worst sufferers Crohn’s disease can mean 20-30 painful and embarrassing diarrhea visits to the toilet everyday. Treatment is sometimes effective for mild cases of the disease, but for the most severe cases treatment options are very limited. Now with the recent development of a stem cell transplant cure, more than 20 individuals with the most severe form of the disease have seen their symptoms either completely or almost completely eradicated.
Similar to other treatments that we have covered, for example that of bubble boy disease, the treatment focuses on “resetting” the patient’s malfunctioning immune system by replacing it with a new one. Healthy stem cells from the bone marrow are first extracted from the patient, followed by chemotherapy that completely destroys the patient’s immune system. Afterward the extracted stem cells are re-implanted into the individual where they naturally proliferate and differentiate into a new, properly functioning immune system. Billy Tytaneck, the first Canadian to undergo the treatment, has written a first hand account of his experience with the procedure.
The very first success in treating Crohn’s disease was performed on Joy Weiss eight years ago in 2001, and several other individuals have undergone the treatment since. In a recent press release from the Hospital Clinic in Spain, new information was released regarding the worldwide status of stem cell transplant treatments for Crohn’s. From the release we learn that the procedure has been performed on 12 patients in the US, 4 patients in Italy, and now 6 patients in Spain. Reportedly 80% of the cases have witnessed total remission, and the remaining 20% of cases have witnessed considerable improvement in quality of life.
Given the success of the treatment one might be surprised to learn that only on the order of 20 individuals from a world population of millions of sufferers have undergone the treatment. The reality is that stem cell transplant therapy is a very serious procedure that patients choose to pursue only after careful consideration and after all other options have failed. Undergoing chemotherapy is no joke. It carries a small, yet unavoidable risk of cancer and is a serious drain on the patient’s body. Furthermore, replacing one’s entire immune system is a new and barely understood technique whose ramifications over the long term are still being studied. Although patients have now been in remission for up to 7 or 8 years and counting, it is yet to be seen how effective the therapy is 10 or 20 years down the road.
Scottie Roy, a long time sufferer of Crohn’s disease has an excellent blog that catalogs his battle with the disease. Within the blog you can read about the lengthy discussions he and is doctors have had over treatment options, including stem cell transplant therapy.
As more research and data is accumulated, and as the technique is refined, stem cell transplant therapy will hopefully become an increasingly viable treatment for more and more Chrohn’s sufferers.