Stem Cell Therapy for Autism: Effects & Costs in 2021
As a parent of an autistic child, you want to see your child live to their fullest potential. When a clinic offers stem cell therapy for autism, which seems like a miracle cure, you may want to immediately pursue it. You want to try anything that could help your child function better in the world.
Many clinics offer stem cell therapies to treat a range of conditions, including autism. While there is some important new medical research being conducted on how well stem cells work in mitigating symptoms of autism, none of these treatments have received FDA approval.
In 2021, these stem cell therapy treatments are not considered safe for children with autism.
What Is Stem Cell Therapy?
Stem cell therapy is a new field in medicine that offers huge potential to treat conditions that have few other options.
However, there are questionable operations claiming to use stem cells to rejuvenate, improve, or even cure conditions that have no immediate cure. It can be difficult to know the difference between what is advertised as a legitimate medical treatment and what might actually be harmful for someone with a long-term condition like autism.
Stem cells are sometimes referred to as the body’s “master cells” because they are like a blank slate for creating new cells. Bones, organs, blood, and brain cells all start as stem cells.
In some instances, these cells might regenerate, restore, or even replace these tissues. This means that, when used in some medical treatments, stem cells have the potential to fix many underlying issues. The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates stem cell products in the U.S.
The FDA has approved limited use of stem cells in treatments for some types of cancer or disorders of blood and bone marrow. As more stem cell treatments are tested in clinical trials in tightly controlled human studies, more conditions may appear to have prescribed stem cell treatments associated with them. While these clinical trials are very important and can help study participants, few of these clinical trials lead to cures or even therapies to manage the condition.
Before pursuing a clinic offering stem cell therapy, check whether the practitioners have received FDA approval for the treatment.
Can It Work for Children With Autism?
Autism is one of the conditions that could potentially one day benefit from stem cell treatments. This developmental disorder mainly impacts behavior, socializing, communication, and cognition.
Some anecdotal evidence exists that clinics offering unapproved stem cell treatments benefit people with autism; however, there is very little evidence through medical studies that this is possible. Currently, the best treatment for autism is behavior therapy like applied behavior analysis (ABA).
Where Are Stem Cell Therapies for Autism Offered?
There are several clinics offering stem cell treatments for a range of conditions, including autism, joint pain from any source, and multiple sclerosis. The cells used in treatment tend to come from fat cells donated or sold after liposuction treatment.
Typically, these cells are autologous, meaning they are extracted from the patient to create the stem cell therapy and then infused back into the patient. Some clinics use bone marrow or umbilical cord tissues, which come from different donors who are not genetically related to the person receiving treatment.
While clinics report happy testimonials from people who undergo these therapies, it is important to note that many of the reported benefits are associated with conditions that have symptoms that fluctuate over time. For example, arthritis symptoms may come and go, with flareups of pain and inflammation persisting for several weeks or months and then going away as the condition temporarily goes into remission.
The Controversy Around Current Stem Cell Therapy Offerings for Autism
Children with autism tend to be diagnosed at a young age, often around 2 or 3 years old. It is well established that autistic children should receive evidence-based treatment like ABA therapy to reduce later problems with communication, cognition, and socializing. The efficacy of many new treatments for autism is unproven.
It can be difficult for medical studies into any therapy, including a new treatment like stem cell injections, to definitively know if improvements in symptoms are associated with the therapy or with natural developmental changes that can lead to improvements in autism symptoms as the child gets older. More research is needed to solidify conclusions, and currently, the research into stem cell therapy for autism is lacking.
There are concerns that companies may be preying on autistic parents, offering the hope of a cure for autism or a dramatic improvement in symptoms that just hasn’t been proven. Some stem cell therapy companies charge tens of thousands of dollars for this treatment. Regulators warn that the treatments may be illegal, unsafe, and potentially harmful.
Studies on Stem Cell Therapy for Autism
While parents should be wary of commercial stem cell therapy offerings, studies into the practice are ongoing.
As of a 2018 meta-survey, there were several clinical trials using stem cells to manage autism symptoms.
Overall Improvement With Potential for Adverse Effects
For example, one study followed 32 school-aged participants whose ages averaged about 10.5 years old. The group received bone-marrow-derived mononuclear cell (BMMNC) transplantation, which uses stem cells from blood. The protocol involved the intrathecal cellular therapy as well as other important therapies for autism, including occupational, sensory integration, psychological, dietary, and speech therapy.
During the course of the study, three participants developed seizures, and a small percentage of the group developed mild increases in hyperactivity as a result of the stem cell treatment. However, as a group, there were noted improvements in social relationships and reciprocity like smiling and eye contact; thinking, attention, and cognition; and speech and language patterns and usage. There was also a decrease in inappropriate emotional responses, self-stimulating behaviors, excitement or agitation for no clear reason, and exaggerated emotional responses.
While there were some adverse side effects, many improvements were also seen in the small group.
More Benefits for Nonverbal Children With Higher IQs
Another clinical trial examined a group of diagnosed autistic children between the ages of 2 and 7 to see if autologous umbilical cord blood (AUCB) transplantation could improve some autism symptoms. Subjects were randomly divided into two groups, with one receiving the stem cell transplant and the other receiving saline injections.
At a six-month follow-up, the group who received infusions had better socialization, communication, and adaptive behavior scores compared to the control group. The improvement was sustained at a one-year follow-up.
Unlike some other studies, nonverbal children with higher IQs seemed to benefit the most from this type of stem cell infusion. The researchers stated that the improvements could also be associated with natural development as the children entered preschool.
The Necessity of FDA Approval
There have been three other major stem cell studies involving children with autism, but they have all had a wide variance in the treatments used, study participants, how outcomes were measured, and even how the studies were designed.
More importantly, clinical trials do not prove that stem cell therapies work. Pursuing any that do not have FDA approval could cause harm to your child.
Problems With Getting Stem Cell Therapy for Autism in 2021
While you want to do everything possible to help your child, there are some serious risks with attempting unapproved treatments like stem cell therapy. These risks remain even if the clinic is managed by medical personnel, has a good reputation, or appears clean.
If you participate in an unproven treatment that is not FDA-approved, like stem cell therapy, you could put your child at risk for:
- Inflammatory conditions due to unfamiliar cells.
- Skin irritation at injection sites.
- Damage to the central nervous system when using lumbar punctures.
Because these clinics are not real medical clinics, they don’t have licenses or oversight. You will not receive any health insurance coverage for these treatments as they are considered experimental.
These clinics are essentially boutique operations. They often charge a lot of money while falsely raising your hopes about the outcome. Parents suffer through grief and frustration when the treatment doesn’t work, and they are left with a major financial setback.
How to Help Your Child
The best way to help your child when they receive an autism diagnosis is to pursue evidence-based treatments that are recommended by your pediatrician and other specialists.
Treatment will most likely involve behavior therapy like ABA. This therapy has been shown over decades of practice and numerous medical studies to help people with autism manage behaviors associated with the condition. Speech therapy and occupational therapy are also commonly part of an autism treatment plan, depending on the severity of the disorder and the child’s specific needs.
Complementary treatments like art therapy or music therapy can round out a treatment plan. These creative therapies help to improve behaviors, socializing, communication, and motor skills.
In 2021, there is no known cure for autism. While it can be tempting to pursue any therapy that is promising a miracle treatment, be aware that these claims are not based in science. Unfortunately, parents who pursue these false treatments are wasting money and experiencing immense stress.
There are ongoing clinical trials into the efficacy of stem cell therapy for autism, so we’ll learn more about this possibility in the coming years. Until then, stick with therapies your treatment team recommends. This will ensure the safety and progress of your child.
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