Published On: Wed, Dec 11th, 2019

Stem Cell Therapy vs. Gene Therapy: What’s the Difference?

Medicine has made astonishing leaps in just the last few decades. Since the launch of the Human Genome Project in 1990, we’ve developed an even greater understanding of everything from viruses and cancer to forensics and evolution. Knowing the genetic basis of life has not only realized the once sci-fi possibility of cloning, it is enabling us to better imagine alternatives to previously limited therapeutic treatments for a variety of conditions. Maybe you’ve heard these terms on the news or read about them in a book or newspaper: “stem cell therapy” and “gene therapy.” Both have become quite commonplace as more and more scientific discoveries regarding the role our cells and genes play come to light. Contrary to what you might think, though, they are not the same.

Researchers have developed a 3D printer that prints human embryonic stem cells while other advnaces are still lagging behind (Dr Will Shu / Biofabrication)

Here’s the difference between stem cell therapy and gene therapy:

Stem Cell Therapy

Stem cells are the body’s most versatile cell types. They can become many (if not all, as is the case with embryonic stem cells) types of cells in the body. Instead of being limited to a specific and solitary function, stem cells can become skin cells or blood cells or muscle cells and so on. Of particular importance is the fact that stem cells are able to control their division, either dividing to become two stem cells or to become one stem cell and one cell of a certain type. This is important because it means they have the potential to replace cells of one type when they are damaged, diseased or diminished by age. 

Stem cell therapy, then, is the harvesting and transfer of stem cells into a body with the expectation that they will proliferate and either help repair or replace damaged cells. Stem cells can be taken from many places at many stages of human development. Embryonic stem cells are the most powerful since they can divide and become any type of cell in the body. However, they are only available during the earliest part of embryonic development, making them physically and ethically harder to collect than adult (somatic) stem cells, which come from many adult tissues, such as skin, blood and bone marrow. In addition, stem cells can originate from the patient in which they will be used (autologous) or from a donor (allogenic). Depending on the treatment, certain types of cells are chosen over others. For example, mesenchymal and hematopoietic stem cells can be taken from bone marrow and injected into a herniated disk as an alternative to back surgery.

Gene Therapy

Gene therapy, on the other hand, is the transfer of genetic material, not intact cells. According to the American Society of Gene and Cell Therapy, “gene therapy is the introduction, removal or change in the content of a person’s genetic code (their genes) with the goal of treating or curing a disease.” Genes are nucleotides that direct the making of proteins within a body. If you change the genetic material in a person, you have the potential to change the molecular structure of certain proteins and thereby change the effects that those proteins produce. Gene therapy, therefore, aims to introduce genetic material into a body so that the body does one of three things:

  1. No longer produces the code for the old protein production; 
  2. Produces more codes for proteins that fight disease-causing proteins; 
  3. Produces a different code for a new protein 

So, What’s the Difference?

In gene therapy, the goal is to transfer genetic material. With cell therapy, the goal is to transfer cells. In some instances, both types of therapies might be used in conjunction with one another to try to maximize their therapeutic effects. Such is the case when stem cells are removed from a donor, genetically modified in a lab and then injected into a patient so that subsequent cellular divisions will produce the right type of cells needed to fight, repair or replace the old, damaged or diseased ones.

Both cell and gene therapies can be used to potentially treat degenerative and acquired diseases, as well as injuries. 

Author: Chans Weber

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