Curious About Stem Cell Therapy? Here’s What You Need to Know

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Photo: Courtesy of Drew Hays

While some in the medical industry focus on the hunt for optimal health, others are working to find cures to many of the ailments and diseases that still plague humanity. One of those men is New Yorker Dr. Steven Victor, a leader in the field of regenerative medicine who has been researching, developing, and providing treatment with stem cells in the US and, most recently, in the UAE.

We sat down with Dr. Victor to find out more about stems cells and their application in medicine.

Let’s start at the very beginning. What are stem cells?
When you are a fetus made of undifferentiated cells, all those cells are stem cells. As the fetus grows, some stem cells become the heart, some become the liver, and some become bone. You are then born as a person with all these different organs. In your bone marrow and within your bloodstream — among every single wall and blood vessel — there are more stem cells.

They are there to fix you because, as we get older, things happen to us. Aging is basically inflammation, and stem cells are released to repair this damage. In short, stem cells are undifferentiated cells that can become something else, that are there to be used by your body to repair any organ. 

Do stem cells decrease in number as we age or do we maintain the same amount?
The bone marrow is always making stem cells, and they float around in your bloodstream. These stem cells get used in a regular fashion and, eventually, the circulation goes down. However, there is another set of stem cells sitting in your blood vessels called stromal vascular fraction cells. They are in your body when you are born, and they never age. As an example, if you were to fall down and break your leg, stromal vascular fraction cells would be released, each carrying a different function. The first set is going to stop the bleeding, while the next set will work on the inflammation. After that, they will increase your blood flow to the area because you need it to heal your broken bone. After 90 days, your bone, muscles, blood vessels, and nerves will be back to normal.

If someone is blind, we are able to help them regain 90 percent of their vision.

When it comes to diseases, however, the stem cells get overwhelmed. I relate this issue to a game of Pac-Man. The monsters eat up all the good tissue, and the body responds by sending out stem cells to try and stop them, but they begin losing. To resolve this, we harvest stem cells (that are stored in the fatty tissue’s capillaries), and we give the body back big doses of stem cells. All of a sudden, the monsters are overwhelmed and they lose. While they are not dead, they are at least not overtaking the body anymore. People get better and, sometimes, they get better forever. However, other times, they have to be treated every year, every two years, or even every three years. 

Is it more painful to remove stem cells from the bone marrow (i.e. the old fashioned way)?
Yes, it is ten times more painful. I have done it for patients, but nobody has been happy with it, including me. You get 20 percent fewer cells than what you can get from your capillaries and fat. The product we make is better that way than when we take them from the bone marrow, and there is a lower risk of complication.

Which kinds of diseases do stem cells help cure?
Stem cells can help slow down the aging process. Additionally, they help with orthopedic injuries. We have used stem cells to grow back rotator cuffs, knees, hip cartilage, and more. We have injected stem cells into every joint of the body. With orthopedic injections, we are approximately 90 percent successful. In the neurological world, we treat multiple sclerosis. We’re able to take people from wheelchairs to walking with a cane. Similarly, if they have no control of their bladder, we help them get control of it. If someone is blind, we are able to help them regain 90 percent of their vision.

We’ve also been able to help improve a child’s learning ability, concussions, cardiac problems, and common illnesses. Stem cells have the potential to repair anything that is broken.

Do stem cells help with infertility?
They have, on accident. One patient from London had done about four rounds of IVF, trying to get pregnant with her third child. She came to us for beauty purposes, and ended up getting pregnant naturally. Her child is now about five and as healthy as can be. Because we think injecting the stem cells helped her get pregnant, we are going to embark on a study soon to test stem cell therapy on women who have not been successful with IVF.  

So, to answer your question, stem cells could potentially help with infertility. A lot of the fertility clinics are taking platelet-rich plasma (PRP) and injecting it into a woman’s ovaries. However, they are achieving very little success. Our cells and product, on the other hand, are ten times stronger. This should increase the chances of success substantially.  

Where is stem cell therapy available in the UAE?
Right now, we are offering it at the Emirates Hospital in Jumeirah across a variety of verticals, including beauty, wellness, orthopedic, autism, dementia, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, and multiple sclerosis.

You mentioned diabetes. How do stem cells work in that sense?
We have intravenously injected cells in patients with type 2 insulin-dependent and type 1 insulin-dependent diabetes and, within three to six months, they no longer needed insulin.

When you have diabetes, there is something called A1C. If a patient’s A1C goes down by a minimum of 50 percent, they are doing well. Because the A1C goes down and the insulin dependency is less, the sequelae — which is the real big problem in diabetes — goes down tremendously. This, in turn, reduces insulin resistance. However, a lot of this is theoretical; we think new pancreatic cells are made because, all of a sudden, the patient is secreting their own insulin, resulting in reduced insulin resistance.

What can you tell us about stem cell research?
Compared to when I started doing this 12 years ago, there is a lot of research. Whereas previous there were maybe only 500 articles published each year, in the last four to five years there have been more than 10,000 articles published. In fact, Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Stanford, and Michigan all now have stem cell divisions.

Twelve years ago, there were only two companies researching and working with stem cells. Now, there are over 200 companies doing it across the world.

Is stem cell therapy popular in the US?
It’s not very popular there because the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is much slower to approve it. In America, about 1,000 doctors practice stem cell therapy, but they don’t follow the rules. In turn, they are being shut down. If we want to practice in the US and make claims, we have to conduct FDA-approved clinical studies.

However, Former President Barack Obama approved something called the 21st Century Cures Act. Under the act, there was a very big section called regenerative medicine. It enabled all regenerative medicine and stem cell products to be fast-tracked. It normally would take anywhere between five to ten years to get something approved just for claims, costing about $100 million. Now, it can take anywhere from two to five years, costing $15 to $20 million.

Are there any other issues, diseases, or illnesses you are interested in exploring?
I would like to help families who have autistic children as the chances for improvement are immense.

Because we think injecting the stem cells helped her get pregnant, we are going to embark on a study soon to test stem cell therapy on women who have not been successful with IVF.  

In regards to autism, is stem cell therapy a one-time treatment?
Yes, it is a one-time treatment. There is one patient who could not speak or maintain eye contact. He is about five now and he can say four words, as well as look you in the eyes. Additionally, we have treated children who were agitated and aggressive with no social contact and now, that they are older, they can socialize with people.

When kids get older and hit puberty, 20 percent of them will not respond to the treatment. So, it’s not perfect.

Do you recommend stem cell injections as a preemptive measure or a way to maintain your body?
The question is what age you should start them. I think a good age is 35 because, the older you are, the more injections you will need to look and feel better. I have patients come back for more because they do not change their lifestyle whatsoever. They eat what they want and do not understand that exercise is important to maintain the effects of the injections if weight loss is their goal.

Can stem cells help patients who have cancer?
Unfortunately, stem cells don’t work on cancer. However, they can help with the inflammation people get after chemotherapy. This can help improve a person’s quality of life. Our philosophy is that, if you feel better, your body will fight cancer harder. We also believe that, if you have a more positive outlook, you will live longer. However, we are not in the business of curing cancer; we can help your body rebuild itself after chemotherapy.

What do you think about the Dubai-based hospitals that have started storing cord blood so that they could harvest stem cells once the patients were older?
This practice was extremely popular in America 20 years ago. However, the cells are only potent for seven years and only seem to work if your child has leukemia. Otherwise, it is useless. Now, you can take stem cells from muscles and fat instead of having to store them.

Can you extract stem cells from anyone’s fat or are there limitations?
You can extract them from anyone’s fat. I have extracted them from the skinniest kids in the world. We have extracted stem cells from a two-year-old autistic child, as well as children who are four and five. We only need two ounces, so it’s not a problem.

For more information on the treatments available at Emirates Hospital in Dubai, click here