MANILA, Philippines - Even if one takes away the hype, there are a lot of reasons to feel hopeful and excited about stem cell therapy. Aside from the rejuvenating wonders that celebrities talk about, stem cells, when gathered from safe sources and used the right way, present effective treatments for a variety of diseases, including Parkinson's Disease and Multiple Sclerosis to Type 1 Diabetes, to many types of cancers (even leukemia) and heart disease, to plastic and reconstructive surgery, and many orthopedic ailments.
At least five hospitals in the Philippines have departments dedicated to stem cell therapy. The Cellular Therapeutics Laboratory at the Makati Medical Center, the Institute for Personalized Molecular Medicine at The Medical City, National Kidney Institute's Molecular and Cellular Therapeutics Laboratory in collaboration with Lung Center of the Philippines, and St. Luke's Medical Center.
Stem cell facilities of these five Philippine hospitals use stem cells from the safest known sources: bone marrow and peripheral blood from the patient himself or herself, or from human umbilical cord blood. In cases where the patient, for one reason or another (the patient is too young, or too old and frail), cannot use his or her own stem cells, donor stem cells are harvested, usually from siblings, parents and other close relatives.
As mentioned earlier, stem cells must come from the safest sources possible to achieve the best treatment results. Besides bone marrow and peripheral blood, another safe option is umbilical cord blood.
One provider of cord blood and tissue banking services in the Philippines is CordLife Philippines. It is, in fact the first and only cord blood processing and cryopreservation facility in the country that is built according to global standards. It is ISO-certified and registered with the Philippines Department of Health.
CordLife Philippines is part of CordLife Limited, a network of state-of-the-art stem cell banks in the Asia-Pacific region that has facilities in India, Indonesia, the Philippines, Singapore, Hong Kong and China.
Neurosurgeon Eric Flores, M.D., head of the Cellular Therapeutics Laboratory of Makati Medical Center, has said that stem cell therapy is "the future of medicine." Molecular biologist and oncologist Sam Bernal, M.D. who heads The Medical City's Institute of Personalized Molecular Medicine, has said that stem cell therapy ushers in the age of truly personalized molecular medicine-meaning, medical science is moving in a direction where treatments are customised to the individual patients using medicine that is engineered at the molecular level.
According to Bernal, stem cell therapy begins with a "molecular profile" of a patient. "No two cancers are alike. Each cancer patient is unique. In order to find the exact cure to that patient's cancer, we look at the molecules of that patient's tumour, for example, and find the right medication and the right treatment that is customised to treat that tumour," he said.
The way stem cells work against cancer is a lot like science fiction warfare, as Bernal tells it. First, the stem cells are engineered to become what are called dendritic cells. These dendritic cells have been engineered based on the molecular profile of a patient's cancer cells. When these specialised dendritic cells are released in the patient's body, they start hunting the cancer cells. These dendritic cells are very specific: it's like a lock-and-key mechanism. These dendritic cells will only lock-on to the cancer cells that they were designed to identify and search for. Once both dendritic cells and cancer cells lock on, the dendritic cells activate the patient's T-cells.
The T-Cells are the immune system's hunter-killer cells. The dendritic cells that lock on the cancer cells allow the T-Cells to find the cancer cells. Once a T-Cell finds a cancer cell, it engulfs the latter. The T-Cell then releases hydrogen peroxide "bombs" into the captured cancer cell, which causes the cancer cell to explode.
"We get cancer all the time," said Bernal, "but most of the time, our immune system finds these cells and destroys them. However, there are cases where the immune system fails to recognise cancer cells. When the immune system fails to do so, that's when cancer develops and spreads and becomes a life-threatening illness. So, essentially, stem cell therapy boosts the body's capacity to identify and destroy cancer cells that were previously unrecognized."
Bernal pointed out however, that stem cell therapy is presently used as an adjunct to chemotherapy. So a patient has to undergo both chemotherapy and stem cell therapy for the most effective treatment.
On the other hand, according to Dr. Flores, stem cell therapy also helps a cancer patient recover from chemotherapy's toxic side effects. According to him, stem cells are "used to repopulate the blood and bone marrow with normal blood elements after ablative chemotherapy in the treatment of such conditions as leukemia, multiple myeloma Hodgkin's and Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma." Thus, the cancer patient undergoing stem cell therapy is able to tolerate chemotherapy better.
Two patients who underwent stem cell therapy in the Philippines are Sumathi Selvaretnam, M.D. an Internist from Florida, USA, and Ateneo Professor Ed Morato, Ph.D.
Dr Selvaretham had been diagnosed with stage 4 ovarian cancer metastatic to the lungs, liver and pelvis. She underwent her stem cell therapy with Dr. Bernal at The Medical City. "As a doctor, I was understandably worried about my condition when I received my diagnosis. But I am happy that with this new treatment, I was able to go into remission and hopefully, I will continue to be in remission," she said.
Professor Ed Morato, Ph.D. did not have cancer but he did have a serious heart condition that made him very weak and out of breath. It was so serious that one cardiologist he consulted basically told him to prepare for death-that he should create his "bucket list" and do the things he always wanted to do before dying. At the time, his breathing was so difficult that he had an oxygen tank in his bedroom.
He needed to breathe in the oxygen from the tank every night when he slept.
Morato, however, refused to give up. He heard about stem cell therapy at a party and decided to give it a try. "I have always been intuitive about my health. So when I felt that stem cell therapy was right for me, I did it even though my other doctor had already given up on me." After treatment with stem cells by Dr. Bernal, Morato has recoverd from his heart condition enough and is able to go back to teaching and he no longer needs his oxygen tank.
These amazing recoveries from serious illness are just a few of the successful cases of stem cell therapy. Dr. Flores of the Makati Med talks about one-year-old children who awaken from a coma after stem cell treatment, walk a year later, and attend school as if nothing happened in 3-4 years. He also said that back pain and degenerative joint conditions have been eased significantly by stem cell therapy, as well.
Amazing as stem cell looks for now, even more amazing treatments are on the way as science further harnesses the power of these cells in step with the progress of the medical science and technology behind it.