Advances in genetic research are occurring rapidly and that work paves the way for genetic therapies from local clinics across the U.S. In some instances, patients face a choice for repairing a damaged organ through transplant surgery or through stem cell therapy. Surgery may remain the best choice for patients who arrive in a hospital’s emergency department with acute conditions, such as broken bones, uncontrolled bleeding, burns, stroke, and heart attack.
Stem cell therapy is usually targeted at soft tissues and although it tends to repair organs more slowly than transplant surgery, it has been found effective in healing of damaged livers, kidneys, intestines, some osteoarthritis problems, knee joint or spine damages. Stem cell therapy can also address neurological conditions such as multiple sclerosis, and Parkinson’s disease. It has been used to treat critical limb ischemia, inflammatory bowel disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and recently, HIV. The overlap with transplant treatments includes livers, kidneys, intestines, knee joints, spine damages, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
Wherever stem cell therapy is a viable option, it appears to be less costly and less disruptive to the patient’s life than the surgical transplant alternative. As stem cell therapy becomes perfected for more conditions, it is likely to be the therapy preferred by patients and health care payers.
At present, the gulf in price between transplant treatment and stem cell therapy is wide. U.S. clinics charge between $4,000 to $15,000 per stem cell treatment. There may be minor additional costs, e.g. $250 for an assessment prior to the injection, or a charge for a second injection (up to $1500). Stem cell therapy procedure is substantially the same for treating different organs, except, of course, for the injection site.
In contrast, the average price for organ transplant (including some pre and post-op procedures and drugs to prevent organ rejection) is a high of $1,121,800 for an intestine transplant, $787,700 for a heart transplant, $523,000 for a lung transplant, or $259,000 for a kidney transplant. Other studies of transplants, such as that by Milliman, reveal higher costs.
Transplants are about 80-times more costly than stem cell therapy. The actual organs are comparatively cheap to acquire as shown by their black-market prices. A black-market heart costs $119,000, and a small intestine costs $2,500. It is the surgical and pre- and post-hospital stays that make transplants so costly. Transplants are unaffordable to most people who lack a benign insurer, and many insurers will go to great lengths to find a plausible reason to refuse coverage.
Stem cell therapy can be available locally and within the financial reach of many Americans, even without resort to medical tourism in India, Mexico, or Thailand for an equivalent treatment.
The safest stem cell injections use the patient’s own stem cells (aka autologous) collected from fat tissue or bone marrow, but sometimes healthy donor stem cells are used. These are called adult stem cells. The collected stem cells are allowed to divide to form more cells called daughter cells. “These daughter cells either become new stem cells (self-renewal) or become specialized cells (differentiation) with a more specific function, such as blood cells, brain cells, heart muscle cells or bone cells.”
Placental and umbilical (embryonic) stem cells are the most versatile and are used for repair of other than orthopedic tissues. They can be nudged to replicate rapidly or to differentiate into specialized cells such as bone, heart, blood or nerve. Embryonic cells usually come from 3 to 5-day old embryos that were the product of in vitro fertilization that, with informed consent, the parents have consigned to research. Their origin causes some people to object on ethical grounds, but embryonic stem cells are more potent than adult stem cells.
In comparison with “miracle” drugs and transplant surgery, stem cell therapies deserve acknowledgement as the medical breakthrough most likely to promote affordable treatments or damaged organs.