Stem cells are nothing new. Scientists, researchers and medical professionals have been using them for several decades at this point. Even the original controversy surrounding the harvesting of stem cells has died away with the ability to harvest adult stem cells from your own body, as well as the ability to harvest stem cells from umbilical cord blood and tissue.
However, despite the decades of research and scientific development, there is still a great deal of confusion around this treatment option. For instance, what is a mesenchymal stem cell? How do these differ from other stem cells? Are mesenchymal stem cells useful in all types of stem cell-related treatments?
What Is a Mesenchymal Stem Cell?
It’s become common practice for the media to lump all stem cells into the same category, but that is not actually the case. There are several types depending on where the cells were harvested from.
According to a study published through the National Library of Medicine,
“Mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs) are stem cells which can be isolated from human and animal sources. Human MSCs are the non-hematopoietic, multipotent stem cells with the capacity to differentiate into mesodermal lineage such as osteocytes, adipocytes, and chondrocytes, as well as ectodermal and endodermal lineages (hepatocytes).”
To put that in plain English, mesenchymal stem cells are a specialized type of stem cell that can be harvested from human tissue, and which can self-renew, while transforming into a very wide range of tissue types. For those unfamiliar with the terms in the excerpt above, osteocytes relate to bone tissue, adipocytes relate to fat tissue, and chondrocytes relate to cartilage.
The Two Types of Mesenchymal Stem Cells
As mentioned, mesenchymal stem cells can be harvested from human tissues, and that gives rise to the two basic types in use today – autologous stem cells and allogeneic stem cells. What are the differences and which is the better suited for treatment options delivered to human patients, as opposed to laboratory research?
Autologous Stem Cells
We’ll begin our comparison with autologous stem cells, simply because they are currently the most commonly used type, particularly in laboratory research, but also in some emerging treatments for human patients.
Autologous stem cells are, simply put, your own stem cells. They’re harvested from your own body, most often from fatty tissue, although there are other sources available if necessary. These mesenchymal stem cells can be useful in many applications, but there are several problems that make them less than ideal for use outside of the laboratory, including the following:
- Age: Autologous stem cells are the same age as your body. That means they have already divided and subdivided many times over. While multipotent stem cells can self-renew many times, they do eventually wear out and die.
- Potential Contamination: There is the chance that old stem cells harvested from your own body contain contamination from daily living in the modern world. This contamination could hinder their use in treatment.
- The Potential for Rejection: While autologous stem cells are your body’s own cells, there is a chance that your immune system will attack and your body will reject them if there is a mutation within the cells.
Allogeneic Stem Cells
Allogeneic stem cells are harvested form an outside donor, generally from banked umbilical cord material. Mesenchymal stem cells are generally found within the cord walls themselves, while the cord blood is a rich source of hematopoietic cells. While these cells are not your body’s own cells, there are several factors that make them better suited for use in human treatments, including the following:
- Youth: These are young, energetic cells with a lifetime’s worth of dividing and subdividing. This means they are more effective, and work more quickly.
- No Contamination: Young stem cells harvested from cord tissue (and cord blood) have no contamination. They are also contained within a purified matrix that ensures complete purity for injections.
- No Rejection: Stem cells harvested from cord tissue and cord blood are “blank”, meaning that the body will not reject them and there is no chance for an immune system reaction.
Which Is Better?
From the discussion above, it should be apparent already that allogeneic stem cells are the better choice over autologous stem cells. However, autologous stem cells still see a greater instance of use. Most of those uses are in a laboratory setting, though, which means that contamination, mutation and the risk of immune system reaction are not issues.
There is also emerging evidence within scientific studies that supports the use of allogeneic stem cells over autologous stem cells. For instance, a study published through the National Institutes of Health, US National Library of Medicine focuses on a comparison of autologous and allogenic mesenchymal stem cells for non-ischemic dilated cardiomyopathy.
According to the study’s authors, by the end of the trial,
“there were no 30-day treatment-emergent (TE)-SAEs. 12-month SAE incidence was 28.2% (95% CI: 12.8, 55.1) in allogenic, and 63.5% (95% CI: 40.8, 85.7; p-0.1004) in autologous cells. One allo-group patient developed an elevated donor specific cPRA. EF increased in allogeneic by 8.0 units, and in auto by 5.4 units. 6MWT increased for allogeneic by 37.0 meters but not in autologous. The MACE rate was lower in allogeneic than in autologous. Tumor necrosis factor alpha decreased to a greater extent in allogeneic trial subjects than in autologous trial subjects at six months.”
The team concluded their study by saying,
“These findings demonstrate safety and support greater, clinically meaningful efficacy of allogenic-hMSC vs. autologous-hMSC in NIDCM patients. Pivotal trials of allogeneic-hMSCs are warranted based on these results.”
In the end, mesenchymal stem cells are simply a subset of stem cells found within the human body and within umbilical cord tissue. These can be autologous cells, but allogeneic stem cells are the better, more effective option. However, remember that all stem-cell related therapies are considered experimental, and no stem cell treatment is approved by the FDA at the time of this writing.