It’s been all over the news that Michael Schumacher’s health is improving. The reason seems to be related to stem cell treatments that he was given in Paris at the Georges Pompidou European Hospital by Professor Menasché, a surgeon and cardiologist expert in cell therapy. According to reports from Paris, Michael may have received stem cells intravenously, in order to obtain a systemic anti-inflammatory action (i.e. throughout the body). It’s a fact that there are other reports that the former F1 driver has improved, but it’s not known in what function and to which degree.
But what are stem cells?
Stem cells are cells that are able to create all the cell types found in our body. In fact, only moments after conception, the embryo is made up of only a few cells (after four days, there are just 16 cells) that in a short time begin to differentiate and form into all the organs that allow us to live.
It’s as if they were students who, with an accelerated course that lasts about nine months, take various paths, in order to do different jobs; all useful to the “community” in which they live. There will be cells that will create the organs to purify the blood (the kidneys), those that will allow the absorption of oxygen (the lungs), those that will allow us to think (the brain), and so on.
How can stem cells help us?
All cells have a finite lifetime, and our body is able to reproduce them in order to replace them over the course of our lives. However, there are situations where, due to trauma or other damage, our body uses stem cells to restore its lost cells. This mechanism works in many cases but is unable to repair injuries beyond a certain point. For example, in the case of a heart attack, the body reacts and the stem cells of that specific organ attempt to repair the damage, but have a limited capacity that in many cases is sufficient to restore a good quality of life for the person — but in other cases much more drastic interventions by Doctors are necessary.
In addition, each organ is considered to contain specific organ stem cells. In other words, for example, blood is formed from specific stem cells also called hematopoietic stem cells, just as heart cells can only form cells from this organ. Therefore, our body, on its own, cannot use adult stem cells from one organ, in order to repair another.
A very interesting type of stem cell is called embryonic stem cells. These cells are capable of building all the organs and tissues of our body during the development of our organism. Therefore, unlike adult stem cells such as hematopoietic cells that can only generate blood, embryonic stem cells can potentially generate any of the hundreds of cell types in the human body; bone cells, skin cells, brain cells, and so on. However, embryonic stem cells are by no means easy to find.
In fact, they come from supernumerary embryos, advanced by fertility treatments. Therefore, there are problems, both of a practical nature of availability but above all, problems of an ethical nature to be able to use embryos that are (for all intents and purposes) of potential human beings.
However, there are stem cells that can perform the same work as embryonic stem cells, but these come from an adult subject: these are induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS).
How do induced pluripotent stem cells work?
In 2006, two researchers at Kyoto University in Japan demonstrated that they could “reprogram” skin cells by artificially adding four genes and making them capable of potentially reproducing any type of adult cells. Their research began on mice, but progressed very well, since they received the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 2012.
The big advantage of iPS cells is clearly ethically, because they don’t use embryonic cells; and practically, because they modify cells starting from the patient him-or-herself, and therefore they don’t involve rejection issues, in the case of anorgan produced in-vitro for transplantation (read here for more details on 3D-printed organs).
Finally, there are some issues to be resolved before stem cell therapies become common practice. In particular, with regard to side-effects, stem cells (especially induced ones) could potentially generate tumors or trigger immune system reactions.
Returning to Michael Schumacher, we can’t be sure as to which method was used, if it is true that he indeed underwent stem cell therapy. We can only speculate, and the most reasonable, in my opinion, is that iPS cells were used to attempt to repair brain injuries, in particular. Of course, we can’t rule out the possibility that the Georges Pompidou European Hospital is carrying out research that has not yet been published, but it would be rather risky to undergo treatment that has not been clinically validated; although without valid alterations.
Certainly, if the health of the former F1 driver improves, the media will not fail to let us know!
This post is also available in: Italiano