Crohn’s disease is a chronic inflammatory bowel disease that has no cure. It causes abdominal pain, frequent diarrhea, weight loss, fatigue, and anemia. While the disease can be controlled to some degree through oral and injectable medications, life-threatening complications may occur.
One of the feared complications of Crohn’s disease is called a bowel fistula. A fistula is an abnormal connection between two places on the body. In Crohn’s disease, a fistula forms between the intestine and some other structure—the intestine essentially forms a “tunnel.” The fistula can form between one loop of intestine and another, between intestine and bladder, or even between the intestine and the outside of the body. This complication of Crohn’s disease is obviously quite distressing to patients.
Some bowel fistulas may close on their own with conservative treatments, but fistulas associated with Crohn’s disease do not respond well to available medical treatments. Those looking for an alternative treatment may be able to consider stem cell therapy.
Stem cells offer an interesting potential solution to this problem. Stem cells can provide a large dose of normal cells filled with molecules that can help direct normal bowel growth and development. Indeed, researchers have shown that autologous mesenchymal stem cells can help close and heal fistulas in patients with Crohn’s disease.
In phase I, II, and IIB clinical trials, stem cells derived from adipose tissue or bone marrow were directly infused into the bowel area (via a so-called intra-fistular injection). Across five clinical studies including over 100 patients, stem cell administration resulted in complete fistula healing in 50 to 80% of patients treated. Of those who did not obtain complete control fistula closure, almost all had evidence of improvement. These results support that autologous mesenchymal stem cell therapy is a promising future treatment for patients with Crohn’s disease and may offer patients enjoy a better quality of life.