What is stem cell therapy?
Our bodies are made up of different types of cells, like brain cells, blood cells, heart cells, skin cells and stem cells. Stem cells can turn into many other types of cells.
In stem cell therapy, stem cells are injected into a patient to repair or replace damaged cells as a way of treating various conditions. The stem cells might come from donors or the patient themselves.
Stem cell therapy is used in the treatment of conditions like blood cancers, burns and damaged corneas. But it is not recommended as therapy for autism. There is no clear scientific evidence that stem cell therapy helps autistic children.
Who is stem cell therapy for?
Stem cell therapy is for people with severe burns, blood and immune system conditions like leukemia and lymphoma, or damaged corneas. In Australia, these are the only conditions for which stem cell therapy has proven to be safe and effective.
Although some people claim that stem cell therapy can be used for a wide range of other conditions, including autism, stem cell therapy for autism is not recommended.
What is stem cell therapy used for?
Supporters of stem cell therapy for autism say that it can reduce characteristics of autism. They say it can improve behaviour, anxiety, social skills, communication, speech and ability to focus.
There’s no clear scientific evidence that stem cell therapy changes the characteristics of autism.
Where does stem cell therapy come from?
In 1968, Robert A. Good from the University of Minnesota did the first successful stem cell therapy. He used bone marrow stem cells to treat immunodeficiency disorder.
Since then, researchers have been testing how stem cell therapy could be used to treat other conditions.
What is the idea behind stem cell therapy for autistic people?
Research has shown that in certain conditions like leukemia, stem cells can reduce inflammation and improve the way the immune system works.
Supporters of stem cell therapy for autistic people claim that autism is associated with inflammation and problems with the immune system. They claim that injecting stem cells into an autistic person will reduce the characteristics of autism. But these claims are not supported by scientific research.
What does stem cell therapy for autistic people involve?
There are currently no established practice guidelines for treating the characteristics of autism with stem cell therapy. This means the treatment can vary across clinics.
Generally, though, the treatment involves the following stages:
- Pre-treatment checks: before starting the therapy, the patient might have blood tests, medical history checks and other physical checks to work out whether they’re a good candidate for the therapy.
- Collection: the types of stem cells and the way they’re collected and prepared varies. For example, stem cells can be collected from donor placentas, umbilical cords or bone marrow. They can also be collected directly from the patient’s own bone marrow, fat or cerebrospinal fluid. This can be a painful and invasive procedure.
- Cultivation: after collection, some stem cells might need to grow in a laboratory for a few weeks.
- Injection: the cells are injected into the patient’s vein or spinal canal. This can be a painful and invasive procedure. The patient might need to have an anaesthetic and/or be admitted to hospital. Depending on the clinic and the patient, there might be multiple stem cell injections over a period of days, weeks or months.
- Follow-up: there are usually follow-up appointments after each treatment.
You can expect stem cell therapy to cost tens of thousands of dollars. The cost of this therapy varies depending on the types of stem cells used, the number of treatments, and the clinic.
Does stem cell therapy work for autism?
There is currently no good-quality evidence that stem cell therapy helps with the characteristics of autism. More high-quality research is needed.
There’s also evidence that stem cell therapy can cause side effects like tumour growth, abnormal bone growth, seizures, infection, allergic reaction and immune system rejection.
Who practises stem cell therapy for autism?
Some private stem cell clinics in Australia and overseas offer stem cell therapy for autism characteristics. Because stem cell therapy is not yet proven to be safe and effective for autism, it’s often carried out by under-qualified practitioners.
Parent education, training, support and involvement
If your autistic child is having stem cell therapy, your main involvement is taking your child to the treatment clinic. You also need to monitor the effects of the therapy.
Where can you find a practitioner?
Stem cell therapy for autism characteristics is not recommended in Australia.
If you’re thinking about stem cell therapy for your autistic child, you should talk about its potential benefits and risks with your GP or paediatrician, or one of the other professionals working with your child.
There are many therapies and supports for autistic children. These range from behaviour therapies and developmental approaches to medications and alternative therapies. When you understand the main categories that these therapies and supports fall into, it’ll be easier to work out the approach that will best suit your child.