Dysregulation of the Immune System
The human body is a marvelous thing. It contains nerves, muscles, tendons, ligaments, bones, organs, all of which go into making up "us". However, the body must have a way of protecting itself from invaders – viruses and bacteria, primarily, but also other potentially dangerous pathogens. This job falls to the body’s immune system.
In a healthy immune system, the body fights back against invaders and aggressors. White blood cells (T and B cells) are manufactured in response to viral invasion. The body’s temperature rises (fever) in an effort to make the environment inhospitable to infectious vectors. The immune system can take many other steps in order to safeguard the body from harm. However, there are times when this system breaks down, and rather than protecting the body, the immune system begins to attack itself.
These instances are called autoimmune diseases, or diseases involving the dysregulation of the immune system.
What Is Dysregulation of the Immune System?
Immune system dysregulation refers to any disease in which the immune system attacks parts of the body. In a sense, it is a case of mistaken identity that triggers the disease. If the immune system mistakes normal cellular proteins for invaders, it will attack. Generally, this takes the form of what the National Institutes of Health term a "cascade of inflammation".
The single most important rule for a regulated immune system is that components of the body should not be attacked, while invading organisms should be attacked. Dysregulation occurs when the immune system mistakes the body’s cellular material as an invader.
What Are Some Examples of These Diseases?
There are numerous examples of diseases that involve dysregulation of the immune system. Any chronic disease involving inflammation could be considered such a condition. However, some concrete examples include the following:
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Multiple sclerosis
- Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)
- Type 1 diabetes
Each of these diseases presents with unique symptoms. This has led to the idea that they are caused by separate conditions. However, at the root of all of these diseases lies a disfunction within the body’s immune system.
What Current Treatments Are Available?
For most sufferers of autoimmune conditions, there are two types of medications used. One of those is the broad class of anti-inflammatory medications. Inflammation is at the heart of virtually all autoimmune disorders, from rheumatoid arthritis to type 1 diabetes. By controlling that inflammation, patients are better able to manage their symptoms.
Another class of medications is also used – immunosuppressants. These medications tone down the body’s immune system, limiting its attacks on the body. However, there are numerous downsides to this. One of those is that because the immune system is suppressed, actual invaders (viruses, bacteria, etc.) can easily enter the body. Those taking immunosuppressants easily become sick, and even conditions that are generally considered mild, such as the common cold, can be potentially deadly. Another danger is development of cancer: immune system defends us against cancer and when suppressed it leaves us vulnerable.
Of course, neither anti-inflammatory medications nor immunosuppressant medications actually treat the underlying condition that is causing the disease. They treat the symptoms and help patients live a healthier life with fewer complications, but they do not cure the root of the problem.
There is hope that stem cell therapy may one day be able to do that.
How May Stem Cell Therapy Offer Help for Sufferers?
Stem cell therapy is currently being explored for its use in treating a very broad range of diseases and conditions, from most types of cancer to dermatitis. In order to understand why this is the case, we must first explore what stem cells are in the first place.
When the human body is first beginning to form in utero, there is only one type of cell – the stem cell. In this stage, there are only pluripotent stem cells, rather than multipotent stem cells that come later. Pluripotent stem cells are immature. That is, they have not taken on their final specialization for use within the body.
Eventually, most stem cells do become specialized to a particular region of the body or organ. For instance, there are stem cells in the skin, stem cells in the lungs, and stem cells in the pancreas. However, in the beginning, there are only stem cells with no specialization. They are able to transform themselves into whatever type of tissue is needed for repair of damage, which is one reason that most all babies are born healthy.
Stem cells are, in a sense, shape-shifters, able to take on whatever form is necessary to heal the body and thereby improve function and reduce inflammation.
This is one of the primary reasons they are being explored for use in treating diseases involving dysregulation of the immune system. For instance, in type 1 diabetes, the destroyed beta islet cells can be replaced with stem cells. In multiple sclerosis, stem cells can help to regrow the myelin covering on nerves, even stop the breakdown from occurring in the first place.
A number of clinical studies are currently ongoing involving stem cells and autoimmune conditions. While the FDA has yet to approve any stem cell therapy for use in humans, there is a great deal of promise.
Autologous and Allogenic Stem Cells: Understanding the Difference
It is important to note that many of the studies currently taking place use what are called autologous stem cells. These stem cells are harvested from the patient’s own body, cultured, and then injected back into the body. On the surface, this seems to make sense, but the truth is that autologous stem cells are less effective than other options. This is because a patient’s own stem cells have already accumulated a significant amount of damage over the patient’s lifetime. They have also expended much of their energy, with few, if any, divisions remaining, which limit their ability to heal the body and reduce inflammation.
Allogeneic stem cells, on the other hand, are derived from umbilical cord blood and tissue. These cells are very young, and incredibly youthful, with a lifetime of divisions ahead of them. Because they are autoimmune naïve, they do not cause any sort of immune system response, either, allowing them to immediately begin repairing damaged cells and tissues within the body.
Ultimately, stem cell therapy may hold hope for not only the treatment and management of autoimmune conditions, but potentially could cure them. However, remember that any such treatments available should be considered purely experimental at this time, and that allogeneic stem cells keep bigger promise, rather than autologous stem cells.