Understanding stem cell therapy
- Alice H. Reyes (The Philippine Star) - September 4, 2012 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines -  Neither rain nor high water deterred me from keeping my appointment at the Makati Medical Center on a stormy August day, there to seek answers to the questions bugging me about stem cell therapy. 

Dr. Eric Flores, head of MMC’s Stem Cell Laboratory, which is barely six months old, and Dr. Francis Chung, senior scientific officer were on hand to enlighten me on a subject that has been in the news lately, thanks to revelations made by prominent political and entertainment personalities who have undergone stem cell therapy in Germany which, so they claim, has admirable results.

 To date, TV host Lolit Solis, actress Lorna Tolentino, and former Senator Ernie Maceda are just three who have admitted publicly that they availed themselves of the treatment for health and/or aesthetic or rejuvenation reasons. I have heard of many more whose names I dare not mention to protect their privacy.

 I could have merely Googled it and sought information from Wikipedia, but I have always preferred to go to the experts, living, breathing sources of knowledge, which is why I sought and found Drs. Flores and Chung.

Dr. Flores, for one, is a veteran neurologist and neurosurgeon who completed his medical studies at the University of the Philippines, trained at the UP-PGH before moving to the United States, where he was awarded full accreditation as a diplomate of the American Board of Neurosurgery, and earned his fellowship on Neuro-oncology at the University of California in San Francisco, California,USA. 

Returning to the Philippines with his wife and four children, after more than a decade of remarkable work at the University of Minnesota as assistant professor and practitioner, Flores, also a diplomate of the Philippine Board of Neurological Surgery, settled down “ to give back to his country” by using his expertise to treat Filipino patients at the Makati Medical Center.

 Dr. Francis Chung, also a product of the University of the Philippines, got his Ph.D. in Pathology and Molecular Medicine from the University of Auckland, New Zealand and his post-doctoral fellowship from the University of Washington in Seattle, Washington, USA and the Peter MacCallum Cancer Institute in Melbourne, Australia.

Stem cell therapy is “ an intervention strategy that introduces new adult cells into damaged tissue to treat disease or injury. The ability of stem cells to self-renew is a potential for the generation of tissues to replace diseased and damaged areas of the body with minimum risk,” according to Wikipedia.           

“We have stem cells in our bodies, different types of cells in the heart, brain, and other organs which can replicate,” Dr. Flores explains. “The stem cells come more commonly from the blood, bone marrow, placenta, and umbilical cord, either from the patient himself or from other human beings. These are what we use, not stem cells from mountain black sheep grown in Germany.”

 Stem cells that come from the patient are called autologous, those coming from genetically different donors of the same species (siblings, parents, children, cousins or an unrelated match) are allogenic while those from different species such as sheep are xenogenic.              

In the Philippines, stem cell therapy is relatively young, only five to six years, compared to its practice in Europe and the United States

Besides Makati Medical Center, the only other hospitals that treat patients with stem cell therapy are the Lung Center, the Kidney and Transplant Institute, Medical City, and St. Luke’s Hospital in Global City.              

MMC’s Stem Cell Laboratory boasts being the cleanest laboratory of its kind, a Class 100 facility with state-of-the-art equipment from Germany, the United States, and Japan. It services only seven patients at a time, with each patient having his own “incubator.”

The lab has a staff of five scientists (molecular biologists), a nurse, and an administrative assistant, all of whom are experienced in stem cell therapy.                

A patient who is to undergo the treatment is first tested in the lab to see to it that there is no infection. He is then given medicine to increase the stem cells in his body for a period of five days. On the sixth day, the cells are “harvested” and then purified in a machine called CliniMacs, the only one in the Philippines, which separates cells to 93-94% purity. In the next two or three weeks, the cells are cultured in an incubator (with 5% carbon dioxide) to increase or transform them before they are transplanted in the patient.                

Believe it or not, there are anywhere from 10 to 20 million stem cells at any time, according to Flores.              

Right now, Flores bares, patients with cancer, Parkinson’s Disease, brain, heart, and joint illnesses are being treated at the MMC Stem Lab, and he hopes in the near future to be able to help cure patients with lung, liver, pancreas, knee, hip, and other problems .

“Within five years,” he says,” we will be able to help cure patients with Type 1 Diabetes as well.”               

While the cost of stem cell therapy may seem great, P2.4M for all kinds of diseases, less than P1.5 M for rejuvenation, Flores says that Makati Medical Center has the largest charity service for patients who cannot afford the life-saving treatment.

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