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Stem Cell Therapy: Heal Thyself

By New You Editorial
Posted On Jul 23, 2014

Adult stem cells present untold possibilities within the medical world, and the Cell Therapy Foundation waves the banner high.

BY Mabel D’ath

Traci Runge had two options. In the wake of a double mastectomy, chemotherapy, and 35 rounds of radiation, her doctors could bring the latissimus muscle from her back to her front and rebuild her chest, or she could forget about rebuilding her chest entirely. It was a heartbreaking debate, one no woman should have to face. She was unaware at the time of a glimmer of hope being fostered by her doctor. A few months after learning of these stark options, she was presented with a game-changer: adult stem cells. “He said there was another alternative, in which they take the ‘bad fat’ and dispose of it, then inject those adult stem cells into my chest,” recalls Runge. “I thought, What do I have to lose?”

This new option became possible thanks to a dedicated international group of scientists and researchers working on adult stem cell therapies, many of whom have lent their expertise to an organization called the Cell Therapy Foundation. They’ve made it their mission to create awareness around the use of adult stem cells, connect patients with clinical trials, and provide researchers with funding. Currently there are many adult stem cell therapies being studied for diseases and conditions including cancers, blood disorders, immune system deficiencies, and genetic diseases—stem cells being the foundation for every organ, tissue, and cell in the human body.

The foundation’s advisory board—a who’s who of passionate doctors and other professionals from medical centers, biotechnology companies, and other stakeholders from around the world—came together in 2007 to create a voice for the use of non-controversial adult stem cells. “It’s relevant to point out that adult stem cells are distinct from embryonic,” says Keith March, MD, PHD, Director of the Vascular and Cardiac Center for Adult Stem Cell Therapy at Indiana University. Dr. March serves as medical advisor for the Cell Therapy Foundation. “They may be readily obtained from the adult body, or the placenta, or the umbilical cord, but they are not from the embryo. They are adult stem cells, about which there are no ethical concerns.” This absence of ethical entanglements is the message. The self-healing power of stem cells offers scientists the possibility of creating new therapies and cures for a wide variety of diseases. These cells help the body heal itself, and potentially transcend the need for drugs or other chemical interventions.

“One of the foundation’s major concerns is to help patients in need find clinical trials and offer them life-saving or quality-of-life-saving investigational therapies,” says Lisa Lorentz, the foundation’s director. “More than 50 percent of all clinical trials experience delays due to patient recruitment issues. This slows down the progress towards new drugs and therapies.”

Options were all that Chip Gagnier wanted when he entered a clinical trial, hoping to avoid the amputation of his leg. “I was way past the point of personal concern, emotionally,” Gagnier says, describing his year-long wait to learn whether he had been given a placebo or stem cells in a medical trial. Clinical trials are generally very carefully conceived and constructed, so that they recruit patients with a particular set of “inclusion” and “exclusion” criteria. The purpose of these trials—spearheaded by Dr. Michael Murphy, an advisory board member of the foundation and Dr. March’s colleague at the Vascular and Cardiac Center for Adult Stem Cell Therapy—is to identify people with a particular type of disease. “Dr. Murphy has been leading FDA-approved clinical studies that are treating patients who have been told their only option was to amputate their leg. To get into the study, they had to have either resting pain—pain even when they weren’t walking—or an area of their leg that wouldn’t heal.” Gagnier was diagnosed with peripheral artery disease. Blood had stopped flowing in his extremities, and there were areas of his leg that had been wounded, ulcers that were not healing.

“When I was fortunate enough to be accepted into the study, I told Dr. March and Dr. Murphy, ‘If it works for me, that will be great. If it doesn’t and it can help somebody else avoid amputation, that will be just as satisfying to me,’” insists Gagnier.

Doctors took bone marrow from his back, centrifuged the stem cells out, and put these helpful cells into Gagnier’s leg. The procedure allowed blood to flow properly throughout his leg once again. Three years later, he still has his leg. “It was like waiting to have a child,” Gagnier recalls. “That feeling of gratification was indescribable, that I was fortunate enough to get the cells; fortunate enough to have them work.” The realization that he could continue to play golf with his son tapped a wellspring of emotion. “My son just gave me a big hug.” Gagnier is eternally grateful to his personal physician, Dr. Tim Story, for connecting him to the study, and insists that all of the Cell Therapy Foundation’s doctors are a very close part of his life.

Gratitude at this level is alive in Runge’s existence, as well. Runge’s initial directive was to gain 30 pounds so that Dr. Bruce Van Natta could put a tissue expander in her breasts and stretch her skin with stem cells garnered from the fat. “Because radiation damages good cells and bad cells indiscriminately, we were able to reverse some of the damaging effects of the radiation treatment,” Dr. Van Natta says. “I’ve been in practice for 25 years, and have done a great deal of breast reconstruction. Before, I had no other options to present to my patients. To watch Traci’s breasts become increasingly soft and her sensation returning, all mediated by stem cells, was just phenomenal.”

When Runge felt tiny “bee stings” in her chest, she knew her nerve endings were reconnecting. “I can now tell if I’m going to injure myself while carrying laundry, or getting too close to a stove,” she says. “These are things I took for granted before.”
Runge and Gagnier are evidence of the foundation’s great work, but theirs is a small voice. “There are 75,000 to 100,000 people every year in the US alone who receive an amputation because of poor blood flow to the legs,” says Dr. March. “Yet it took us three years to find 32 patients for the very first FDA-approved amputation study. This demonstrates a huge gap in awareness of the potential for adult stem cells, and bridging the gap is what the foundation does. People need to know, this isn’t just about legs. There are studies that involve lungs, stroke, and various autoimmune studies. We know there’s a true interaction between adult stem cells and inflammation. It’s like the cells are an all-natural anti-inflammatory agent.”

The biggest problem when it comes to adult stem cells is confusion about their nature. “When anybody hears about stem cells, they think, embryonic stem cells,” says Gagnier. “I say, sit down with me and I’ll tell you how these cells are obtained and how they’re working.” Such is the goal of the foundation. “Being credible is absolutely critical,” insists Dr. March. “As a community of scientists across the world, the Cell Therapy Foundation is an amplifier for the world of adult stem cells.”