Ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease, together known as inflammatory bowel disease, are chronic disorders of the lower digestive tract that cause patients considerable difficulty and discomfort. Patients generally go through periods of normalcy punctuated by relapses. In cases of inflammatory bowel disease, patients may experience severe, and sometimes bloody diarrhea. Patients also experience crampy abdominal pain, the urgent need to defecate, pain with defecation and even fecal incontinence. Consequently, people with inflammatory disease often endure substantial amounts of suffering.

Inflammatory bowel disease is usually treated with 5-aminosalicylate or sulfasalazine. These drugs are intended to reduce inflammation in the bowels. Relapses do still occur for those patients taking these medicines. During these relapses, patients often need to take steroids for short or intermediate periods of time but over time, side effects can occur. Immunomodulators such as azathioprine, 6-mercaptopurine, and methotrexate can be used to reduce inflammation, however, these drugs can also cause side effects. Newer biologic response modifiers have helped people with severe inflammatory bowel disease but they may weaken the body’s immune system, making it more difficult to fight off infection. For these reasons, safer and more effective treatments for inflammatory bowel disease are needed.

Fortunately, researchers have conducted a number of clinical studies examining the role of stem cells in the treatment of inflammatory bowel disease. The most promising results have come from allogeneic mesenchymal stem cell therapy using stem cells derived from the umbilical cord. Research has found that allogeneic mesenchymal stem cells injected into a vein were able to induce a clinical response 3 out of 9 patients tested. One patient had complete clinical remission. In all cases, the stem cells increased the quality of life for patients. Five out of seven patients with inflammatory bowel disease had clinical remission after stem cell treatment. Likewise, further research showed that the stem cells could induce a clinical response and 12 of 15 patients and full clinical remission in eight of them. Here too, patients reported improved quality of life with stem cell treatment.

These results are incredibly promising and offer hope to patients struggling with ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease. While more research is needed, patients with inflammatory bowel disease should follow this field closely for new developments.

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