Crohn’s disease is a chronic illness that can affect any part of the gastrointestinal tract but mostly affects the small and large intestines. People with Crohn’s disease often have inflammation of the large bowel (Crohn’s disease is an inflammatory bowel disease or IBD). This colitis causes abdominal pain, cramping, diarrhea, along with bleeding and infections in the gastrointestinal tract. Crohn’s disease can interfere with a person’s ability to absorb nutrients, leading to malnutrition and weight loss. The medical community is debating whether it is possible to treat experimental colitis with fat-derived stem cells.
The standard medical treatment for Crohn’s disease involves one or more powerful drugs. When the disease flares up, patients usually must take steroids either orally or intravenously. They may also receive disease-modifying therapy such as immunomodulators and biologic medications. Many patients do enjoy remission once they receive these powerful drugs; however, side effects can be difficult to tolerate. Patients who cannot tolerate these powerful drugs or do not achieve disease remission may have to take steroids every day. Chronic steroid use has many severe and sometimes permanent side effects. If these treatments fail, patients may need to have surgery to remove a portion of their intestines that have been damaged by Crohn’s disease.
In an effort to find safe and effective treatments for Crohn’s disease, researchers have been testing stem cells in laboratory animals. In one study, scientists used a chemical to cause colon inflammation (colitis) in mice. This chemical causes many of the symptoms of humans with Crohn’s disease experience such as diarrhea, tissue damage, and weight loss. The researchers then treated some of the mice with mesenchymal stem cells gathered from human fat tissue (adipose) to see if stem cells could improve the symptoms.
Remarkably, human stem cell treatment reduced diarrhea, inflammation, and disease severity in mice with colitis. The chemical colitis caused mice to lose approximately 15 to 20% of their body weight. Mice that received stem cell treatment regained most of the weight they had lost. Researchers also noted that mice treated with adipose-derived mesenchymal stem cells lived significantly longer than those that did not receive stem cell treatment.
Of course, this research was performed in laboratory animals, but it lays important groundwork for testing in humans. Indeed, since the publication of this report, researchers have been able to show that adipose-derived stem cells helped patients with Crohn’s disease. This exciting work will no doubt lead to future studies that may help pave the way to wider use of stem cells in the treatment of inflammatory bowel disease, such as Crohn’s disease.
Reference: Gonzalez, M. (2009). Adipose-Derived Mesenchymal Stem Cells Alleviate Experimental Colitis by Inhibiting Inflammatory and Autoimmune Responses. Gastroenterology. Volume 136, Issue 3, March 2009, Pages 978-989