Endometriosis affects millions of women around the world. It causes pain and discomfort, and for a significant number of women, it can also lead to infertility. While there are treatment options, few of these are permanent, and there is no true cure. Stem cell therapy is being researched as a potential solution to endometriosis and the pain it can cause, helping women to lead a healthier, happier life.
What Is Endometriosis?
In endometriosis, the tissue that would normally line the interior of the uterus instead forms on the outside. It can form on the uterus itself, around the fallopian tubes, and in other areas. It can also be present around other organs in the body. Most women with this condition experience pain and discomfort, as well as menstrual abnormality. However, some women experience no symptoms at all.
What Causes Endometriosis?
The underlying cause of endometriosis is not known. However, there are several theories, and there are many factors involved. One possible cause is what’s called retrograde menstruation – a condition in which blood and uterine tissue moves out of the fallopian tube and into the abdominal cavity. There, it multiplies and forms around other structures.
Another theory is that it is actually a type of cellular mutation, in which cells outside the uterus become uterine lining cells. Yet another theory is that uterine lining cells migrate outward through the lymph system or blood and reach other organs in the body.
What Are the Symptoms of Endometriosis?
The most common symptom of endometriosis is pain during a period. This is because bleeding happens not only within the uterus, but outside of it, wherever that tissue might be found. When the tissue bleeds, the blood can come into contact with other organs, and this can cause irritation and swelling. Other symptoms can include pain during intercourse, excessive bleeding during periods, prolonged bleeding after periods, and pain with urination or with bowel movements.
What Are the Treatments for Endometriosis?
There are quite a few potential treatments that can help women live longer, healthier, happier lives with endometriosis. One of those is excision surgery. During this procedure, the uterine tissue outside the uterus is located and then excised (removed). In some surgeries, lesions within the uterus may be burned away, and in others, scar tissue may be removed so that fallopian tubes are allowed to go back to their natural position. Unfortunately, intraabdominal surgery is frequently associated with formation of adhesions inside the abdominal cavity, and this may be as or more disabling that the very endometriosis that was surgically treated.
Another option is hormone therapy, which is frequently unsafe. Some medical professionals prefer a more conservative approach, such as managing the condition with pain relievers, which offers more comfort, but does little to actually address the cause of the pain. As we know now, long term use of opioid pain medications actually promotes pain chronicity and should be avoided by any means. Nonsteroidal pain medications (such as ibuprofen) have their own dangers and are not safe either. Stem cell therapy is a promising alternative treatment currently being studied.
How Can Stem Cell Therapy Help?
The key to understanding stem cell therapy for endometriosis is to understand how dynamic the endometrium is in the first place. This tissue is subject to significant growth and retraction patterns with each menstrual cycle. That cycle is only possible due to the regenerative effects of stem cells within the endometrium.
Stem cells are the body’s healers. They’re the regenerators that help build new tissue. They can also transform from stem cell into another type of cell or tissue. In essence, stem cells are responsible for regenerating all the cells within the uterine system, including stromal cells, epithelial cells, endothelial cells, and more, every month.
How Stem Cells Function in the Body
Stem cells are vital parts of your body. They provide you with the means to repair organs and tissue throughout the entire body, from the brain to the cartilage in your knees. These cells are present from birth all the way to death, although their number and efficacy decrease over time. At birth and throughout infancy, stem cells are present in our bodies in significant concentrations. By the time we reach our teens, the number drops significantly, and continues to do so as we age.
Throughout our lives, stem cells help us heal from wounds, and regenerate tissue as it naturally dies within our bodies. However, over time, your body’s stem cells accumulate damage. This damage is on the cellular level, and is caused by mutations as stem cells clone themselves to multiply. Eventually, that damage makes them unable to function correctly, and their healing and regenerative capabilities are greatly reduced. This applies directly to the damage to the uterine lining and potential for uterine tissue to grow in other areas of the body as seen in patients with endometriosis.
Current Stem Cell Trials
A number of stem cell trials are targeting endometriosis. Some of those are using the body’s own stem cells, notably those in the endometrium itself. Others are focusing on the use of other mesenchymal stem cells, called allogeneic stem cells, harvested from sources other than the patient’s own body. This is an important distinction, and one that has a profound impact on the success of any potential treatment.
As mentioned, your body’s stem cells age and accumulate damage and mutations over time. Therefore, autologous stem cells (those harvested from your own body) are poorly suited for the job of improving regeneration and healing. They’re also available in very low densities, and are fatigued and damaged by normal life exposures such as toxins and radiation not very energetic.
In contrast, allogeneic stem cells harvested from pre-screened umbilical cord blood and tissue are highly energetic. They also carry no mutations or damage, and are found in far higher concentrations than autologous stem cells. Finally, they are invisible to the immune system, to there is very little chance of an immune system response being triggered.
In the end, endometriosis is a painful condition that could last for an entire almost lifetime. Stem cell therapy offers immense potential for treating endometriosis, but it is vital that allogeneic stem cells are used, and that the physician you work with has the experience needed to determine the best method of introducing stem cells into your body. It’s also important to note that there are no FDA-approved stem cell treatments currently, and all options available are considered experimental.