Can Stem Cell Therapy Help Treat Acute Leukemia?

If you or a loved one is fighting acute leukemia, you may have heard about stem cell therapy as you have researched treatment options. How can stem cell treatments help fight leukemia? Is it a treatment worth pursuing? Keep reading to learn more!

The benefits of stem cells for acute leukemia

Chemotherapy is an effective but very powerful cancer treatment with serious side effects. Because of the toll chemotherapy takes on the body, doctors are unable to prescribe higher doses of chemotherapy, even if it would kill cancer cells more effectively. Damage to bone marrow can cause low blood cell counts, resulting in potentially fatal infections, bleeding, and other issues.

Stem cell transplants can sometimes be given after chemotherapy sessions, allowing higher doses of chemotherapy to be administered while ensuring bone marrow is restored. They also help reestablish the body’s immune system, strengthening it after chemotherapy.

Transplanted stem cells for acute leukemia can be broken down into two types:

  • Autologous stem cell transplants use the cells of the patient. The stem cells are harvested from your body before chemotherapy treatment, stored, and then reinserted into your body after cancer cells are killed by treatment. This type of stem cell transplant is less likely to result in “graft-versus-host disease,” a possible severe side effect.
  • Allogeneic stem cell transplants use the cells of a donor. Donors generally are people who are related to you, as cells must be as close a match as possible to avoid rejection. The benefit of allogeneic stem cell transplants is that they may help kill any cancer cells leftover after chemotherapy is complete. However, there is a higher risk of side effects, such as “graft-versus-host disease,” infection, or rejection of cells.

Older people may not be able to handle the high doses of chemotherapy typically given with stem cells for acute leukemia. In cases like this, doctors may decide to give lower doses of chemotherapy coupled with an allogeneic stem cell transplant to help kill cancer cells and establish a new immune system. This is known as a non-myeloablative transplant. This strategy presents a higher risk of “graft-versus-host disease.”

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