Sarcoidosis is a condition in which granulomas (non-cancerous masses) form in the body. While sarcoidosis can affect any organ, it most often affects the lungs and chest lymph nodes. The cause of sarcoidosis is unknown, but it is thought to relate to problems with the immune system. When sarcoidosis affects the lungs, patients often have coughing and wheezing, shortness of breath, and chest pain. In general, patients with sarcoidosis have a mild fever, joint swelling and pain, and extreme fatigue.
The standard treatment for sarcoidosis involves corticosteroids such as prednisone. While steroid treatment may be effective, patients with sarcoidosis often have relapses unless they stay on steroids chronically. Unfortunately, long-term oral steroid use can cause substantial side effects including weight gain, osteoporosis, a depressed immune system, fluid retention, acne and thinning skin, and possibly diabetes. Therefore, researchers are interested in finding better, safer, longer-acting sarcoidosis treatments.
Since placenta-derived mesenchymal stem cells can modulate the immune system, researchers tested whether they could use these cells to improve symptoms of chronic lung sarcoidosis. Four patients with severe pulmonary sarcoidosis received intravenous infusions of 300 million placenta-derived mesenchymal stem cells. The cells were split into two doses, given one week apart. Patients underwent several tests to evaluate safety and efficacy of the stem cell treatment including X-rays, lung function testing, bronchoscopy, and bronchoalveolar lavage.
Stem cell treatment was associated with a temporary increase in pulmonary artery blood pressure. Two years after treatment, lung function was the same as it was at the beginning of the study. Impressively though, two patients were able to stop prednisone treatment and had visible improvements in their lungs on X-ray. One patient underwent prolonged remission (i.e., had no symptoms from sarcoidosis for an extended time period).
Because of their long-term complications, chronic steroid use is not an ideal treatment for any condition. With stem cell treatment, patients with chronic lung conditions could potentially decrease or minimize their daily intake of prednisone.