Health Benefits Of Bone Marrow
Bone marrow is the most common source of stem cells in humans. Stem cells are undifferentiated cells that can become any type of cell. They’re found in bone marrow, fat tissue, muscle tissue, blood vessels, skin, and even hair follicles (skin). If a stem cell becomes damaged or sick, it’s able to regenerate itself into another stem cell. This regenerative power has made stem cells and their ability to grow new tissues an important part of modern medicine.
While there are other sources of stem cells, such as cord blood and embryonic stem cells, they don’t have the same regenerative powers. So if your body needs more stem cells, this is where they come from — bone marrow.
The average adult human has about 2 milliliter of bone marrow fluid inside his bones. The amount varies by age bracket but generally declines with age. As far back as ancient Egypt, people used to extract marrow from long bones for medicinal purposes. In fact, the word “marrow” comes from the Middle English word marrewe meaning extraction of the marrow. But today we know that the best place to get these precious little cells is inside our own bones. It turns out that when we talk about “bone marrow,” what we really mean is hematopoietic marrow. Hematopoietic means having something to do with blood. Marrow refers to the fatty tissue inside bones.
Hematologists use several methods to collect bone marrow from patients. One method involves getting a needle through the skin of the patient’s hip. Another uses special needles inserted into the bone. After collecting the marrow, doctors filter it so that all the debris and clumps are removed. Then they analyze the blood cells to make sure they contain no cancerous cells.
Once the marrow has been extracted from the patient, it must be stored properly. Doctors usually keep it refrigerated until it’s ready to be transfused back into the patient later on. Transfusion means taking marrow from one person and putting it into someone else who needs it. Once the marrow has been transfused, the donor’s body will produce antibodies against the recipient’s blood cells for up to six weeks. These antibodies prevent the transplanted marrow from attacking the host’s blood cells.
So how does this help us? Let’s take a look at some of the health benefits of bone marrow.
Health Benefits of Bone Marrow
There’s a reason why bone marrow is called the “gold standard” of transplantation therapy. Many diseases affect the immune system, which protects the body against disease. When the immune system is weakened by infection or injury, bone marrow provides healthy white blood cells to fight off invaders. There are many conditions that benefit from bone marrow transplants, including leukemia, multiple myeloma, lymphoma, autoimmune disorders and certain cancers.
As mentioned earlier, bone marrow contains white blood cells, also known as leukocytes. Leukocytes help the body fight infection. Different types of leukocytes attack bacteria, viruses, fungi, protozoans and foreign substances. White blood cells include basophils, eosinophils, neutrophils, macrophages, mast cells, natural killer cells, plasma cells, T cells and B cells. Each kind performs specific functions within the body. For example, neutrophils are responsible for fighting infections caused by microorganisms such as bacteria, viruses, fungi and parasites. Macrophages gobble up cellular waste products and foreign matter in the bloodstream. Mast cells release chemical compounds that alert nearby nerve endings and trigger allergic reactions. Plasma cells manufacture proteins needed for antibody production. And T and B cells send signals to activate helper and suppressor T cells.
A good number of health problems result from deficiencies in particular types of blood cells. That’s because each type of blood cell has different jobs to do. Some help destroy unwanted cells, others control inflammation, still others build immunity, while others yet protect vital organs. Therefore, a lack of a specific type of blood cell can lead to serious illness. Stem cells can regenerate themselves to replace dying or dysfunctional ones. While scientists continue to study the potential of stem cells in treating various diseases, researchers believe that the key is finding the right way to isolate them.
For instance, some studies suggest that stem cells may play a role in repairing nerves after a stroke. Other research indicates that stem cells can repair heart damage. Scientists hope that stem cells could someday treat Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease and spinal cord injuries. However, much remains to be investigated before stem cells can be widely used in medical treatments.
Researchers are also exploring ways to use stem cells in cancer treatment therapies. Since blood cells differentiate into specialized cells to perform different tasks, they might also provide clues to better understand the biology of tumors.
It was discovered that a protein produced by breast tumor cells inhibits normal blood formation. Researchers were surprised because the protein didn’t seem to inhibit the growth of normal breast epithelial cells. What’s more, the protein seemed to stop the development of blood cells in mice. Scientists theorize that the protein blocks the differentiation of stem cells into granulocytes. Granulocytes are a type of white blood cell that helps fight bacterial infections and forms the core of our immune system. Researchers are now trying to find similar proteins in other types of tumors to determine whether they interfere with the process of blood cell maturation.
Another interesting discovery came from researchers who studied the effects of chemotherapy drugs on mouse embryos. They found that a drug called topotecan causes birth defects in fetuses. The drug interferes with DNA replication during early stages of fetal development. Topoisomerase inhibitors work by interfering with enzymes that separate strands of DNA. Because these drugs cause breaks in chromosomes, they kill dividing cells. Researchers speculate that the increased incidence of birth defects in children whose mothers took topotecan resulted from the drug killing dividing cells in the embryo.
One final area of interest focuses on using stem cells to treat HIV/AIDS. Researchers have shown that exposing infected cells to chemicals that mimic the effect of sunlight can stimulate the production of protective immune cells. By doing so, the infected cells transform into antigen presenting cells capable of stimulating uninfected cells into producing antiviral agents.
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Although he had received radiation therapy previously, John Ziegler thought nothing of it when, four years ago, he developed pain in his left elbow. He attributed the discomfort to the repetitive motion of typing. But soon the pain spread to his arm. Eventually, he felt sharp pains shooting down his left leg and to his toes. The pain became unbearable, and he went to see a doctor. X-rays revealed a mass in his upper arm. Ziegler underwent surgery to remove the mass, but the results weren’t satisfactory. Three days later, he returned home and began researching online. Soon, he learned that he had acute myelogenous leukemia, a form of cancer characterized by uncontrolled proliferation of abnormal white blood cells. His chances of survival were slim.
Ziegler decided not only to accept the inevitable outcome, but to live life to its fullest. He gave up his job as an executive assistant for a company in New York City and moved to California. He started attending college classes and working toward a degree in computer science. He purchased property near Los Angeles, and he and his wife opened a bed-and-breakfast inn. He joined a hiking club and began walking and cycling trails along the Pacific Ocean shoreline. More than anything though, he wanted to experience the outdoors and to enjoy time with friends.
John Ziegler died in 2006, but his story lives on. You’ll find details about him on the next page.
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