About Stem Cells

This section provides brief answers to the most common questions. It is not intended to be comprehensive or to recommend any course of treatment. For more information on any topic listed below, please follow the links included.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 

 

1. What are stem cells?

Stem cells are the body’s building blocks. Of the more than 200 types of cells in the body, only stem cells have the ability to regenerate tissue and organs. Each time they divide, a stem cell can make a copy of itself (for future needs) and make a more specialized kind of cell that the body may need to repair or replace cells lost due to injury, disease or regular wear and tear. It is this ability to create more specialized cells and to also create exact duplicates of itself that makes a stem cell both unique and very powerful.

There are different kinds of stem cells and some are more powerful than others. Stem cells that live in different tissue and organs can only make the kinds of cells in that tissue and are known as adult stem cells or multipotent stem cells. For example, a blood stem cell lives in the bone marrow and can only make cells of the blood system. Likewise, skin stem cells can only make the different cell types in the skin. Pluripotent stem cells are more powerful and have the ability to make any kind of tissue in the body. There are two kinds of pluripotent stem cell, embryonic stem cells that are found in 4-5 day old blastocysts (age after conception) and induced pluripotent stem cells, which are created using an adult cell (such as a skin cell) and adding genetic material to turn it back in time to a stem-cell state. 

More information:

  • StemCellShorts - short animations expanding basic types of stem cells supported by the Stem Cell Network and the Canadian Stem Cell Foundation
  • ISSCR - booklet published by the International Society for Stem Cell Research providing definitions and examples
  • EuroStemCell - films, FAQs and fact sheets created by EuroStemCell
  • Stem Cells Australia - booklet proving answers to some common questions regarding stem cells, their use in medicine, and their promise for future therapies
  • Stem Cell Foundation of Australia - fact sheets and general overview of stem cells
 
 
 
A stem cell therapy is any treatment that uses stem cells as the primary way of curing or reducing the severity of a disease or disorder. There are two main ways stem cells can be used: 1) as a transplant, where the desired stem cells are harvested either from the patient or a donor and refined or modified in some way before being injected or grafted into the patient, or 2) as a target for a drug or other biologic, where the drug or biologic is intended to activate a desired response from the stem cells that already exist in the patient’s tissues or organs.  Learn more about stem cell therapies:
 

 

3. What are clinical trials?

A clinical trial is a test that is designed to see whether a new medical treatment is safe and/or effective in humans. It is important to note that clinical trials are part of research and should not be considered a therapy, as improvement or benefit may not be part of the trial’s goals. There are four phases of human clinical trials, as illustrated in the graphic below.

Learn more about clinical trials:

 
 
An unapproved therapy is one that has not gone through the safety and efficacy process through clinical trials. Quite often, unapproved therapies have no published research to show how they work. Learn more about unapproved therapies:
 
 
 
For certain conditions, such as some blood, bone, skin and eye illnesses or injuries, there are safe and effective stem cell therapies, approved for clinical use by Health Canada. All other treatments are considered experimental, although research is very promising for many conditions and newly approved therapies are certain in the near future.  Summaries of recent research in stem cells for 19 common conditions can be found on our site here. Additional summaries can be found on the EuroStemCell, ISSCR and Canadian Stem Cell Foundation websites.  
 
 
 
There can be risks to both clinical trials and to unapproved therapies and it is your right to have a full explanation of these risks, expected outcomes, as well as the treatment protocol and the science behind it. Knowing what to ask is an important step in deciding whether a stem cell therapy is right for you. We recommend the question guides provided listed below:

 

 
If you choose to participate in a clinical trial, follow-up care should be part of treatment protocol, including care for any adverse reactions. This is not always true for unapproved therapies, where follow-up may incur additional costs or may not be provided at all. Receiving a treatment outside of Canada may also mean that any follow-up is not covered by health insurance, and may make you ineligible to participate in clinical trials or receive approved treatments in Canada once they become available. Learn more about post-treatment considerations:
  • Patient Booklet - published in 2014 by the Faculty of Law, University of Alberta, Albany Medical College and Stem Cell Network
 
 
Yes, there are a number of trials; information can be found here.
 
 
Always refer to your physician or specialist before participating in any clinical trials for your condition.