Cell Therapy: Transforming the Future of Medicine

Lifestyle

By Melissa Sorge

From the moment parents find out they are expecting a baby, protective instincts take over. They do everything in their power to safeguard the health and well-being of their child. Expectant mothers begin monitoring their diets, making sure they do not consume raw or under-cooked foods, deli meats, soft cheeses, or alcohol. They alter their physical routines as well, taking care to engage in pregnancy-safe exercises and making time to rest and recharge when needed. As the baby’s due date draws nearer, expectant parents take measures to safety-proof their homes and nurseries as well, ensuring that their baby comes home to an optimal environment. But what if expectant parents could take measures to protect their child not only as a developing fetus and as a newborn, but as a growing child and even as an adult as well? With the advent of cellular therapy, parents have more options than ever before to help their children live long, healthy, and prosperous lives. 

Many expectant parents became aware of cord blood banking in the early 1990s. Essentially, cord blood banking is when a new mother decides to preserve stem cells from her child’s umbilical cord and store them in a blood banking facility for potential future use. These powerful cells can be used to help or even save the child from which they came, should the child develop any hematologic or immunologic diseases down the road. Many parents opt to bank their child’s cord blood as an extra layer of protection for their child’s health. Today, leaders in the field of cellular medicine are honing in on a different type of stem cell banking, focused on the placental organ. Medical researchers have found that saving the placenta after a child is born and banking it for future use can provide even more life-saving benefits than cord blood banking alone.

Leading physician and researcher in the field of placental cell therapy, Dr. Robert Hariri, is confident that stem cells from the placental organ are the key to ensuring better health and longevity for our children. “Cellular medicine, regenerative medicine, and the future for these technologies has never been brighter and more exciting…Stem cells from the placenta and cord blood have been used to treat thousands of patients and have been life-saving in virtually all of those instances,” he attests. I was fortunate enough to spend some time speaking with Dr. Hariri about his breakthrough work in stem cell research and about Celularity, the New Jersey-based cell therapeutics company in Warren, New Jersey, of which he is both the CEO and founder. In our interview, he provides thorough answers to questions new and expectant parents may have about the benefits of cell therapy and how to go about banking some of these potentially life-saving natural materials. 

With all of your diverse interests and talents, what drove you to devote your career to cell therapy?
I started as a neurosurgeon specializing in head and spinal cord injuries, and back in the ‘80s and ‘90s those were pretty devastating injuries with generally poor prognoses, where patients suffered a neurologic deficit that was often irreparable. When stem cells first emerged as a therapeutic or a scientific platform, I was intrigued by the possibility that the cells could restore certain regenerative activities that could repair the brain and spinal cord and return function in that limited recovery environment. I became very interested in how this technology would ever find its way to becoming a scalable, therapeutic [process] that could impact lots of lives, not just a limited number of lives. When I was a surgeon at Cornell and my daughter was in utero, I looked at the ultrasound of my unborn child.For the first time it dawned on me that the placenta—the organ that I had thought was a vascular interface between the mother and the developing fetus—was actually a very sizeable organ that probably played a deeper role than just a vascular connection. Putting two and two together, I theorized that the placenta played a role in the propagation and differentiation of stem cells as the fetus was developing, and if that was the case, at the end of a pregnancy, that waste product might be a good place to look for high-quality stem cells to turn into therapeutic products. 

For those of us not in the medical profession, can you give us some insight into the importance of cell therapy?
We all originate from a single cell—at the time of fertilization, a single cell gives rise to all of the cells that make up the full human body. Some of these cells become brain cells, some of these cells become heart cells, some of these cells become bone cells, etc. What’s unique about stem cells is their ability to mature and divide and specialize into those different cell types. Since those cells can make up all of the functional tissues and organs of the body, could they be a tool to fix damaged tissues or organs? And that’s where the real interest in stem cells came early on. The ability to harness this fundamental, biological property of stem cells to effectuate repair and recovery in damaged or diseased tissues seems like a very logical way to approach the development of new treatments. 

What are the benefits of banking placental tissues, and why might expectant parents want to invest in this type of therapy? 
The stem cells that are recovered from the placenta and umbilical cord blood come from the child; they are biologically linked to that donor. The parents have a unique relationship with the child biologically, and so they often are potential recipients and beneficiaries of those cells as well. The way that parents should look at stem cells collected from the placenta after birth is that they are a way to capture nature’s repair kit and store it away for potential use in the event your child develops any life-threatening, hematologic cancer. And now, these cells may, in fact, play a major role in immunotherapies for the child, provide novel ways to induce repair after common injuries, and then the future holds the probability that these cells can be used to enhance the lifespan of the child as well.

How is placental stem cell banking and placental blood banking different from cord blood banking?
The placenta is the organ that gives rise to the cells that are found in cord blood. Think of it as a continuum from the original cell that is created from conception. Those cells divide and differentiate, or specialize, into tissues that make up the placental organ and ultimately the developing fetus. Since the cells you find in cord blood come from the placenta, it means the cells that come from the placenta have that same potential ability. The beauty of the placenta is that it is such a large organ that the ability to recover large quantities of cells is very, very high. 

How do you respond to expectant parents who ask your advice on whether or not to store their child’s stem cells?
I tell them that there is an expense to [stem cell banking], but it’s not an astronomical expense, and it’s generally well within the financial capabilities of most families. The truth of the matter is that if your child was born with an extra bone marrow system or an extra set of kidneys or an extra set of lungs, would you throw them out at birth or would you try to find some way to store them away?

*Expectant parents can visit lifebankusa.com to learn more about the process of placental tissue banking.

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