Autism is today, more clinically referred to as Autism Spectrum Disorder, or ASD, and has been one of the more challenging medical conditions to document and treat. For many centuries, ASD wasn’t even considered a distinct condition and was often misdiagnosed as other conditions entirely, such as some people with ASD being treated for schizophrenia.
The modern approach to ASD is much more flexible, doing away with categorizations or classifications of different types of ASD, and instead, putting those diagnosed on a “spectrum” of different symptoms at different intensities. This way, no one gets put into a classification with recommended treatments that may not be appropriate because they are not finely tuned to individual needs, and instead, try to address categorial requirements.
However, managing ASD continues to be a challenge. There are different ways to approach ASD, including more psychological approaches, such as behavioral therapy, and medications, such as antipsychotics. What there isn’t, with current medical science, is a cure, although stem cell therapy is emerging as a promising new form of treatment. So what is stem cell therapy, and how can it add to the arsenal of ASD treatment?
The Challenge Of ASD
The reason no cure currently exists for ASD is that unlike many illnesses, such as pneumonia, for example, ASD is not a viral or bacteriological infection. In other words, there is no antibiotic, serum, or other treatment that can eliminate an outside agent causing the issue. ASD can be contracted in multiple ways, and even these methods of transmission are still not fully understood.
ASD has a genetic component since parents diagnosed with ASD can give birth to children that are also diagnosed with it. However, ASD also has a prenatal component, where a pregnant woman who contracts an illness during pregnancy, such as rubella, may result in neurological damage to the developing embryo that leads to ASD. There are also theorized to be post-natal factors, though these have yet to be definitively cataloged. What is known, however, is that ASD, once diagnosed, cannot be removed from the patient.
What Stem Cells Do
Stem cell therapy is a relatively new arrival in medical treatment. It uses, as the name suggests, stem cells for treatment. Stem cells are the basic building block of life. If the DNA that comes from the union of the egg and sperm creates the “blueprint” for how to make a human being, the stem cells are the actual materials used to build the person from nothing.
In medical science, stem cells have the nickname “master cell” because they are “pluripotent,” which allows them to do something no other human cell can do. Stem cells start “blank” and can “reprogram” themselves into any cell of the human body. Human cells like skin cells, for example, normally reproduce only new versions of themselves. A heart cell, on the other hand, cannot reproduce at all, and once a heart experiences cellular loss, it can’t grow anymore to replace the lost cells.
Stem cells, on the other hand, are the powerhouse cells that create a human baby. After the sperm has fertilized the egg, the first thing that happens is that more cells are created to create enough “rough material” to grow into a baby. All of those cells are stem cells, and once there are enough of them, the stem cells eventually specialize into the cells that DNA requires, becoming hair cells, eye cells, brain cells, lung cells and others. These pluripotent stem cells are produced in massive quantities by a pregnant mother as a baby grows.
Once the baby is born, however, the need for pluripotent stem cells ceases, and no more are produced. A lesser version of these stem cells is found in all human beings, in the bone marrow, but these cells are limited in their capability, able to become other blood cells, but not every other available cell in the human body.
Stem Cell Therapy & ASD
Stem cell therapy is a recent treatment where harvested stem cells are injected into a patient. If there are affected or damaged neurological cells, the presence of stem cells may repair this damage by forming new, unaffected cells. In children with ASD, this may result in improvements in speech, attention span, or even a reduction in hostility.
However, for stem cell therapy to be effective, stem cells must be compatible with the recipient. This means either using stem cells harvested on request at the birth of the child or using closely related stem cells from the cord blood of a sibling if younger children had stem cells harvested by the ASD patient did not. A final option for harvesting stem cells is to collect them from the bone marrow, but this is a surgical procedure, and thus more invasive.
Stem cell therapy for ASD treatment is not currently available in the United States. The FDA in America authorizes only leukemia treatments using stem cells. Other countries, such as Georgia, do offer stem cell therapy for other disorders, including ASD.