How does stem cell therapy work?

Stem cell therapy involves looking for new stem cells that can replace cells that are damaged or missing in the patient's body.

1. Searching for healthy stem cells

When searching for healthy cells, the first step is to check whether stem cells from the patient's own blood can be used. This depends on a number of factors but mainly on the progression of the patient's illness. If the patient's own stem cells are no longer usable, we need to look for a suitable donor. Stem cells can only help the patient if the donor has the same tissue type. This is a major challenge since there are tens of thousands of possible combinations of tissue type.

  1. First, we look to immediate family members. Siblings have the highest chance of having the same tissue type (1 in 4) because half of the tissue type comes from the father and the other half from the mother.
  2. We only turn to the donor bank when the patient has no family or no match is found with an immediate family member. We look for a donor from among all the Belgians who have volunteered as a stem cell donor.
  3. If we do not find a match in Belgium, then there are stem cell donors from all over the world ready to help you, giving you a total of around 31 million chances of finding a match.

2. Collecting healthy stem cells

We can harvest healthy stem cells from adults' bone marrow or blood, or from the umbilical cord blood of newborn babies.

From bone marrow

Bone marrow contains billions of stem cells that grow into blood cells throughout our life. Bone marrow is found in hollow and flat bones in our bodies, such as the pelvis and breastbone. We can obtain healthy stem cells by making punctures into the bone under general anesthetic.

From blood

In principle, blood does not contain many stem cells but by administering specific medication to donors, more specifically bone marrow growth factors, we can stimulate bone marrow stem cells to move into the blood. Therefore, we ensure that the blood contains a lot of stem cells at a particular time that we can collect via a blood draw. As such, taking stem cells from blood is easy and can be done without anesthetic. This method also has advantages for patients who receive stem cells from blood; for example, blood production resumes more quickly and the body's defense mechanisms also repair faster.

From umbilical cord blood

After birth, the umbilical cord and placenta still contain a lot of blood from the newborn baby. This so-called umbilical cord blood is relatively rich in stem cells. By collecting the umbilical cord blood shortly after birth and enriching the stem cells in a laboratory, we can freeze and store these stem cells to be used for a patient who needs a stem cell transplant.

3. Administering healthy stem cells

Stem cells are administered via a transfusion. The new stem cells find their own way from the blood to the bones, where they set to work and produce blood. Therefore, stem cell transplants do not require surgery.

When the donor's and patient's tissue types are a perfect match and the transplant is a success, the donor's stem cells grow in the patient's bone marrow cavities. They will then be able to produce healthy blood again.