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What To Know About Stem Cell Treatment for Lung Cancer

Medically reviewed by Todd Gersten, M.D.
Written by Emily Wagner, M.S.
Posted on January 6, 2022

Stem cell therapies are new and exciting cancer treatments that have gained attention for their potential uses. However, this is a relatively new area of biology that is still being studied. Doctors and researchers are continuing to learn more about stem cell therapies every year, and many organizations have noted that there is still a lot to learn. Currently, there are no approved stem cell treatments available for lung cancer.

What Is a Stem Cell Transplant?

To understand what a stem cell transplant is, it is important to first know what stem cells are. Stem cells are a special type of cell that can develop into many different kinds of cells. They are also called progenitor cells.

Stem cell transplants typically involve hematopoietic stem cells, which mature to form different blood cells, including red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets. Before people receive a stem cell transplant, they’ll usually undergo very high doses of chemotherapy and radiation therapy to kill the cancer cells. This is known as myeloablation or myeloablative therapy. After myeloablation, the transplanted stem cells are infused into the blood, similar to a transfusion.

Stem cell transplants are currently approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for treating blood cancer, such as leukemia and lymphoma.

Autologous vs. Allogeneic Stem Cell Transplants

There are two main types of stem cell transplants: autologous and allogeneic. Each type has its own risks and benefits.

Autologous stem cell transplants use stem cells that come from your own body. They can be harvested from your blood or bone marrow. The main benefit of this procedure is that your body will not reject the transplanted cells because they come from you. However, the procedure can still fail, and the stem cells may not work as they should.

An allogeneic stem cell transplant uses stem cells from a donor, typically a sibling. This is because the stem cells need to be similar to yours, or your immune system will reject them. The main benefit of an allogeneic transplant is that the new stem cells will create a new immune system in your body, which can help fight cancer. A risk is that your body’s old immune system might destroy the donor cells before they have the chance to work. Another risk is that the new cells may attack your body and cause organ damage. This is called graft-versus-host disease.

Clinical Trials and Studies of Stem Cell Treatment for Lung Cancer

Although stem cell treatments for lung cancer have been studied in the past, there is currently little to no research being conducted on subject. A handful of clinical trials have been conducted over the past few decades, but many were completed several years ago.

One study investigated the combination of chemotherapy and peripheral blood stem cell transplant (PBSCT) for treating people with small cell lung cancer (SCLC). During a PBSCT, growth factors are given a couple of days before the stem cells are harvested to help them move from the bone marrow into the bloodstream. The stem cells are then collected through a catheter placed into a large vein. The blood flows out through the catheter and into a machine that separates blood cells and stem cells.

In the study, participants were treated with four courses of chemotherapy (carboplatin, etoposide, and ifosfamide) and then were given a PBSCT. The study was completed in 2005, but no scientific data was ever published.

Another study involved people with SCLC who received high-dose chemotherapy and stem cell therapy. The researchers found that the combination treatment improved survival in people with limited-stage SCLC, but it did not help those with extensive-stage SCLC.

There are no studies published on using stem cell therapies for treating non-small cell lung cancer.

Cautions Against Stem Cell Treatment for Lung Cancer

Stem cell treatments have cured thousands of people with blood cancers, but there is little evidence that they are useful in treating lung cancer. The American Lung Association cautions against using this therapy because it has not been studied well in people with lung disease. The short- and long-term side effects are still unknown, and the treatment may make your condition worse.

In 2016, several patient advocacy groups for lung, respiratory, and thoracic diseases signed a statement regarding stem cell treatments. The statement talks about the exciting advances of these therapies but cautions against taking any unapproved, unauthorized treatments. In the United States, stem cell transplants are not approved for treating lung cancer.

However, as cancer research continues, stem cell therapies may be studied in the future in clinical trials. These trials must be approved by regulatory boards before they can begin. In these cases, you can talk to your doctor about clinical trials and whether they are a good option for you.

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Posted on January 6, 2022
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Todd Gersten, M.D. is a hematologist-oncologist at the Florida Cancer Specialists & Research Institute in Wellington, Florida. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Learn more about him here.
Emily Wagner, M.S. holds a Master of Science in biomedical sciences with a focus in pharmacology. She is passionate about immunology, cancer biology, and molecular biology. Learn more about her here.

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