Research into the use of stem cell therapy to treat Crohn’s disease has so far shown that it can reduce inflammation, help heal intestines, and improve quality of life. But a cure for Crohn’s disease is still a ways off.

Crohn’s disease is a chronic inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) that causes irritation and swelling in the lining of the digestive tract. Treatment options for Crohn’s disease typically involve medications such as:

But these drugs don’t work for everyone. Or they might work at first but lose effectiveness over time.

Stem cell therapy is a promising potential treatment option for people with Crohn’s disease. Stem cell therapy has the potential to repair and regenerate damaged tissue and reduce inflammation. In theory, advances in stem cell therapy research could make Crohn’s disease curable in the future.

But current therapies are unlikely to cure the disease. They could, however, help you enter remission. During remission, your symptoms improve or disappear entirely for months or even years.

Currently, stem cells are still an experimental therapy for Crohn’s disease. Scientists are conducting clinical trials to understand who would benefit the most from this type of treatment.

Most cells in your body already have a specific purpose. But stem cells don’t yet have a specific role. They can turn into specialized cells as the body needs them, making them useful in treating diseases that cause tissue damage.

There are two main sources of stem cells: adult body tissues and embryos.

Researchers are looking into using adult body tissues as the source of stem cells for Crohn’s disease treatment. These stem cells are already present in the body. They regularly divide to produce new tissues for maintenance and repair throughout your body.

Researchers are currently evaluating at least two types of adult stem cells for treating Crohn’s disease: mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs) and hematopoietic stem cells (HSCs). MSCs come from the connective tissue or stroma surrounding your organs and other tissues. HSCs come from your blood and bone marrow.

Crohn’s disease causes chronic inflammation and damage throughout your digestive tract. Symptoms include:

In addition to these symptoms, people living with Crohn’s disease can experience painful complications like fistulas, strictures, and abscesses.

Stem cells can repair damaged tissues in your body. When injected near the site of the damaged parts of your intestinal tract, stem cells can help repair this damaged tissue and reduce inflammation, allowing the gut to heal.

A recent review of 18 clinical trials found that stem cell therapy reduced intestinal inflammation, enhanced healing in the tissues of the intestinal tract, and improved the quality of life of people with Crohn’s disease. Participants in these trials also maintained remission for up to 24 months after receiving the stem cells.

Clinical studies have also shown MSC injections to effectively treat strictures and fistulas due to Crohn’s disease. To date, darvadstrocel (Alofisel) is the only MSC injection approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to treat Crohn’s disease with anal fistulas that don’t respond to other treatments.

There are no current standardized guidelines about the procedure, dosing, or type of stem cells that work best for treating Crohn’s disease.

In general, the procedure involves the following steps:

  1. Healthcare professionals extract stem cells from bone marrow or fat tissue from you or a healthy donor.
  2. Scientists cultivate the stem cells in a lab.
  3. A healthcare professional injects the stem cells back into your body, either intravenously (into a vein) or directly into the affected area of the digestive tract.

Researchers are also studying the possibility of delivering the stem cells through a bioabsorbable plug they can surgically implant close to an anal fistula.

Stem cell injections are generally safe. Still, like any medical procedure, there could be side effects.

In clinical studies, the most common side effects of stem cell therapy included:

  • fever
  • viral infections
  • headache
  • neutropenia (low neutrophil count)

Most side effects were mild.

Researchers haven’t yet conducted studies comparing stem cell therapy directly to other Crohn’s disease treatments.

More research is needed to understand who would benefit the most from stem cell therapy compared to other Crohn’s disease treatments. Results are promising, but they vary from person to person.

Some people see significant improvement in their symptoms after stem cell treatment, while others see little improvement.

Stem cell therapy could represent a safe and promising treatment for Crohn’s disease and its complications. But more research is needed, including larger, high quality studies, before stem cell therapy can be made widely available.

Researchers also need to understand the best type of stem cells, the right dose, and the most effective way to deliver the stem cells to the body.

If you have Crohn’s disease that doesn’t respond to other treatments, you may be interested in a clinical trial of stem cell therapy. Talk with a doctor to discuss if a stem cell trial is right for you.