Using stem cells to treat lung diseases—or any disease for that matter—holds great appeal. As scientists work to unlock the possibilities of stem cells in medicine, we hope to be able to move toward further consideration of these approaches in lung diseases. But there's still much to learn about stem cells.

What exactly are stem cells?

Stem cells, sometimes called the body's "master cells," are the foundation for every organ and tissue in your body. They develop into blood, brain, bones and all of your organs. There are many different types of stem cells and each  has different functions, but they all have in common the ability to self-renew (make copies of themselves) and differentiate (develop into more specialized cells).

How are they used to treat disease?

Stem cells have the potential to repair, restore, replace and regenerate cells that could then be used to treat many medical conditions and diseases. You've probably heard of a bone marrow transplant—this is actually a type of stem cell therapy to replace damaged or destroyed bone marrow with healthy bone marrow stem cells. It's one of only a few stem cell therapies that are widely accepted as safe and effective. 

Can lung diseases be treated with stem cells?

Although the future shows great promise, the reality is that right now the effects of stem cell therapy on patients with lung diseases are unproven. Research and clinical trials will help us learn more about the potential of stem cell therapy, and hopefully it will one day be an option to consider. But for now, we're limited to a small number of approved clinical trials that are investigating stem cell therapy approaches for lung diseases.

How do I know if a stem cell treatment is legitimate?

The internet and other sources are rife with claims of stem cells being used for all kinds of conditions, from plastic surgery to lung diseases such as emphysema. These are likely unproven, expensive and potentially dangerous.

Stem cells are considered a drug and are regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the U.S. Like other medical products intended to treat, cure or prevent disease, stem cells require FDA approval before they can be used in patients. Before considering a stem cell treatment, ask your doctor if it is approved by the FDA or is being studied under an approved clinical trial.

What about using my own stem cells?

Even if the cells are yours, there are safety risks, including risks introduced when your cells are manipulated after removal. The FDA recommends that if you are considering stem cell treatment in the U.S., to ask your physician if the necessary FDA approval has been obtained, or if you will be part of an FDA-regulated clinical study. The FDA has jurisdiction over the production and marketing of any stem-cell–based therapy involving the transplantation of human cells into patients, including one's own adult stem cells.

Learn more about the risks of unregulated stem cell treatments for respiratory diseases.

What about traveling to another country for treatment?

Going abroad for medical care is called medical tourism and it can be risky. Outside of the United States, treatments may not be subject to the same health and safety regulations. Do not participate unless independent credible, reliable and objective sources of information are available to substantiate the information and claims being made. If you are considering having stem cell treatment in another country, learn all you can about regulations covering the products in that country. Exercise caution before undergoing treatment with a stem cell-based product in a country that—unlike the U.S.—may not require clinical studies designed to demonstrate that the product is safe and effective.

Please call the American Lung Association Lung HelpLine at 1-800-LUNGUSA for additional questions about stem cell treatments and their potential use for lung diseases.

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