About Stem Cell Therapy for Lyme

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Stem Cells Image for Lyme Treatment by Marty Ross MD

Updated: 3/28/23

Probability of Health Improvement

  • My clinical experience: zero percent
  • MyLymeData: three percent
  • Other research: no published research
  • Placebo effect benefit of any prescription medicine: 30-40 percent

Potential of Stem Cell Therapy for Lyme

Lyme can damage the tissues of the body, including the nervous system, joints, muscles, and immune system. This is where stem cell therapy could be helpful.

Stem cells have the potential to develop into a variety of fully functional cells, tissues, and organs. These are undifferentiated cells, without specialized function, that can become fully functional cells with specific functions in the right environment. Stem cells have two major characteristics. First, they have the ability to divide and grow on their own. Second, they can become specific tissues or organs in the right environment. Research also shows that stem cells release various chemicals that can support existing cells, promote cell growth of many kinds of cells, regulate the immune system, and decrease inflammation.

As a result, stem cell therapy shows great potential to help those injured by Lyme disease. Stem cell therapy could heal and repair injured nerves, brain function and thinking, damaged immune systems, injured joints and muscles, impaired hormonal systems, and more.

What The Data Says

Unfortunately, most with Lyme disease do not appear to benefit from stem cell therapy as it is currently practiced. Below I explain how current options for stem cell therapy may limit the potential benefit of this type of treatment. MyLymeData, an ongoing research project of lymedisease.org, shows only three percent of patients receiving stem cell therapy report improvements.

On the other hand, some case reports in the literature show marked improvement in Lyme disease by people who undergo stem cell therapy using human embryonic stem cells (HESC).

MyLymeData’s findings are instructive, but could be limited by the small number of people who have had stem cell therapy. Also, not all stem cell therapies are equal and MyLymeData does not indicate what type of stem cell therapy people received.

My Observation

I do not observe major improvements in my patients who tried stem cell therapy before seeing me or while under my care.

Types of Stem Cell Therapy for Lyme

Currently, there are a variety of stem cell therapies people use to treat Lyme. Some travel to India and Mexico to receive human embryonic stem cells (HESC). Due to ethical problems, stem cells from human embryos are not used for stem cell therapy in the U.S. Instead, U.S. facilities offering stem cell therapy tend to use adipose derived stem cells (ADSC) as part of infusions of what is called stromal vascular fraction (SVF) that is derived from fat tissues. There are other facilities that offer umbilical cord stem cells (UCSC).

As I describe below, the HESC have potential to develop into any type of damaged tissue or organs, while the ADSC are programmed to develop into fat tissues. UCSC are programmed to develop into red blood cells and immune cells. However, proponents of ADSC and SVF therapy make unproven claims that ADSC can repair most damaged cell lines, including fat, bone, muscle, cartilage, immune, and nerve tissue.

Categories of Stem Cells

There are two general categories of stem cells. These are called pluripotent and adult types. Pluripotent stem cells can develop into any type of tissue or organ in the body. Adult stem cells are programmed to develop into specific tissues and cell lines. 

Pluripotent Stem Cells

Human Embryonic Stem Cells (HESC)
Stem cells from embryos are the best-known form of pluripotent stem cells. In the U.S., therapy using HESC is not allowed due to ethical and legal restrictions.

Induced Pluripotent Stem Cell (IPSC)
In the laboratory, adult stem cells are genetically modified so they can develop into any type of cell or organ. These are usually derived from skin and blood. These types of stem cells are used in experimental settings only.

Adult Stem Cells

There are a variety of adult stem cells. For instance, research for multiple sclerosis has used neurologic stem cells. These neurologic stem cells are programmed to develop into nerve and brain tissue. A common stem cell therapy used in non-experimental cancer treatment is a bone marrow transplant. In a bone marrow transplant, blood stem cells are injected into a patient to promote blood growth in the marrow of bones.

In Lyme disease, one well-known California clinic used adipose derived stem cells (ADSC). ADSC is found in the stromal vascular fraction (SVF) that clinics harvest from sources of a patient’s body fat. ADSC are a form of mesenchymal stem cells (MSC). MSC could develop into the supportive tissues in the body like fat, muscles, bone, and cartilage. ADSC comes from fat, so they are programmed to develop into fat cells and tissues. However, because ADSC are a form of MSC, they may be able to develop into cartilage, bone, and muscle, although the research is not clear if this happens.

Umbilical cord stems cells (UCSC) come from the umbilical cord blood. These stem cells are programmed to develop into red blood cells and immune system cells. The FDA has approved a number of these products to be used for blood and immune system treatments. In addition to these FDA-approved products, some clinics use donated umbilical cord stem cells. Stem cells from the umbilical cord covering and non-blood cells are a form of MSC. Like any MSC, these could develop into fat, muscles, bone, and cartilage. UCSC from cord blood likely contains minimal numbers or no MSC at all.

SVF and ADSC Controversy

Using SVF and ADSC is controversial. The issue many clinics claim is that ADSC can develop and promote healing of a variety of damaged tissues like nerve tissue, the immune system, muscles, and cartilage. However, as I stated previously, as adult stem cells, ADSC likely only can become fat cells and fat tissue.

Research does suggest that SVF does contain chemicals that can lower inflammation, modulate the immune system, and promote the growth of other cell types. It is possible, then, that SVF injections may help those with Lyme beyond its ability to promote fat-cell formation.

Further research may show that ADSC in SVF does repair damaged nerve, muscle, immune, and other cell and tissue types, but this remains to be seen.

UCSC Controversy

Like SVF and ADSC, there are a lot of clinics making unproven claims about UCSC. As I noted above, UCSC contains stem cells that are programmed to become blood and immune cells. Yet, many clinics claim these stem cell treatments can fix the nervous system and other tissues.

FDA Regulation

At the end of 2017, the FDA published new guidance for the stem cell industry and clinics. This new guidance does not allow clinics and stem cell manufacturers to make claims for stem cells beyond the functional type of the cell without FDA approval of the therapy as a drug. For instance, under the new guidance, clinics using ADSC may only claim the cells promote growth or healing of fat in the body.

My Take

I consider stem cell therapy for Lyme disease an experimental treatment of later or last resort. Stem cell therapy holds great promise to repair damage created by Lyme disease. However, at this time the only form of stem cells that have the greatest chance to repair all tissues are HESC. These are not available in the U.S. and require great expense to obtain in India or Mexico. Also, it is not clear from research if this form of therapy will provide benefit for most, even though there are limited case studies showing improvement in Lyme.

It is possible that SVF injections containing ADSC can help regulate the immune system and decrease inflammation. Beyond that, I am skeptical that these injections repair damaged tissues and cells other than fat cells.

Overtime, I am interested in seeing if a manufacturer obtains approval for using IPSC. This type of therapy will likely take years to obtain drug approval through the FDA, however. As I noted above, these cells have the potential to develop into any kind of damaged cell and tissue in the body. I will continue to follow research in this field despite IPSC therapy being years away from any practical use for people suffering from Lyme.

Disclaimer

The ideas and recommendations on this website and in this article are for informational purposes only. For more information about this, see the sitewide Terms & Conditions.

References

View Citations

  1. Bora P, Majumdar AS. Adipose tissue-derived stromal vascular fraction in regenerative medicine: A brief review on biology and translation. Stem Cell Res Ther. 2017;8(1):145. doi:10.1186/s13287-017-0598-y (View)
  2. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Regulatory Considerations for Human Cells, Tissues, and Cellular and Tissue‚ÄźBased Products: Minimal Manipulation and Homologous Use. 2020. FDA-2017-D-6146. Accessed November 6, 2022. https://www.fda.gov/regulatory-information/search-fda-guidance-documents/regulatory-considerations-human-cells-tissues-and-cellular-and-tissue-based-products-minimal (View)
  3. Frese L, Dijkman PE, Hoerstrup SP. Adipose tissue-derived stem cells in regenerative medicine. Transfus Med Hemother. 2016;43(4):268-274. doi:10.1159/000448180 (View)
  4. Horowitz R, Freeman PR. Improvement of common variable immunodeficiency using embryonic stem cell therapy in a patient with Lyme disease: A clinical case report. Clin Case Rep. 2018;6(6):1166-1171. doi:10.1002/ccr3.1556 (View)
  5. Johnson L. What Alternative Treatments Work For Lyme Disease? What Are Their Side Effects? LymeDisease.org. Published January 6, 2019. Accessed May 7, 2019. https://www.lymedisease.org/mylymedata-alternative-lyme-disease-treatment/. (View)
  6. Shroff G. Transplantation of human embryonic stem cells in patients with multiple sclerosis and Lyme disease. Am J Case Rep. 2016;17:944-949. doi:10.12659/AJCR.899745 (View)
  7. Trounson A, McDonald C. Stem cell therapies in clinical trials: Progress and challenges. Cell Stem Cell. 2017;17(1):11-21. doi:10.1016/j.stem.2015.06.007 (View)
  8. Romito A, Cobellis G. Pluripotent stem cells: Current understanding and future directions. Stem Cells Int. 2016;2016:9451492. doi:10.1155/2016/9451492 (View)
  9. Roura S, Pujal J-M, Gálvez-Montón C, Bayes-Genis A. The role and potential of umbilical cord blood in an era of new therapies: A review. Stem Cell Res Ther. 2015;6(1):123. doi:10.1186/s13287-015-0113-2 (View)
  10. Weiss ML, Troyer DL. Stem cells in the umbilical cord. Stem Cell Rev. 2006;2(2):155-162. doi:10.1007/s12015-006-0022-y
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About The Author

Marty Ross, MD is a passionate Lyme disease educator and clinical expert. He helps Lyme sufferers and their physicians see what really works based on his review of the science and extensive real-world experience. Dr. Ross is licensed to practice medicine in Washington State (License: MD00033296) where he has treated thousands of Lyme disease patients in his Seattle practice.

Marty Ross, MD is a graduate of Indiana University School of Medicine and Georgetown University Family Medicine Residency. He is a member of the International Lyme and Associated Disease Society (ILADS) and The Institute for Functional Medicine.

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