Clinical trials and studies suggest that doctors may be able to use stem cells to treat ulcerative colitis. While the results are promising, more research is needed before such therapies become approved and widely available.

Ulcerative colitis (UC) is a type of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) that affects between 600,000 and 900,000 people in the United States. It usually develops before you’re 30 years old. There’s no cure for UC, but current treatments may help provide remission.

Still, current UC treatments carry several risks and don’t always guarantee remission from symptoms. This is why researchers continue to look into other possible UC treatments, such as stem cell therapy.

Here’s what you need to know about the current state of stem cell therapy for UC, which you may wish to discuss further with a doctor.

Stem cells form the basic foundation for all other cells in your body as you grow and develop. These include the cells that form your blood, organs, and bones.

Stem cells are found in humans, animals, and plants. Most stem cell therapies use adult stem cells, which your bone marrow produces.

Unlike other cells, stem cells can self-renew, meaning they can replicate themselves infinitely. For this reason, scientists have been researching whether this self-renewal can be used as a type of regenerative therapy to treat chronic health conditions such as UC.

While stem cell treatments are a growing field of interest, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has officially approved only stem cells that can form blood cells. These may be used to treat blood disorders, certain cancers, and immune disorders.

Stem cell therapy aims to help reduce the underlying inflammation in the mucous lining of your colon when other treatments haven’t worked.

As one 2022 review points out, stem cell therapy is still an emerging treatment option for UC. While stem cells could potentially help treat UC, more clinical research is still underway to investigate both how effective this treatment is and its long-term results.

Researchers have explored two types of stem cells — hematopoietic stem cells (HSCs) and mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs).

Hematopoietic stem cells for UC

HSCs develop into blood cells, including those that play a role in your immune system. A transplant of healthy HSCs can replace faulty ones, correcting the issues with your immune system that cause UC.

The above 2022 review notes that HSCs have effectively treated UC, but there are safety concerns. A 2018 study found that HSC therapy in people with UC led to a worse outlook and more complications when compared with treating other autoimmune conditions.

Mesenchymal stem cells for UC

MSCs develop into nerve, bone, tissue, or muscle cells. MSC therapy has the potential to reduce inflammation and repair damaged tissue.

A 2019 research review notes that studies have shown MSC therapy to be both safe and effective. But the authors also noted that more high-quality studies are needed before its use can be widespread.

Also called a stem cell or bone marrow transplant, stem cell therapy involves taking the cells from yourself (autologous) or a donor with a similar tissue type (allogeneic). Before the transplant, a doctor will run tests to assess your health and the health of any potential donors.

A healthcare professional will draw blood from you or a donor. A machine filters the blood, separating the stem cells.

Stem cell therapy involves injecting the cultured stem cells into your body, where they can transform into other cells. This part of the process takes a few hours and can be done while you’re awake.

Hospital staff may monitor you for up to a few weeks. If you had an allogeneic transplant, you’ll need to take immunosuppressants. You may not fully recover for several months or years.

Another emerging type of stem cell therapy for UC involves using stem cells from adipose (fatty) tissues. But as one 2022 study reports, this method has a higher risk of your body’s immune system rejecting the transplant, particularly with allogeneic adipose stem cell transplantation.

In general, doctors only consider stem cell therapies when other treatments fail. A doctor will also assess your overall health to see if the benefits of a stem cell transplant outweigh any possible risks.

Risks of stem cell therapy may include:

Graft versus host disease (GvHD) may develop when stem cells mistakenly attack other cells in your body after an allogeneic transplant. Unlike other side effects that may occur shortly after treatment, GvHD may develop within several months or up to 2 years after stem cell therapy.

Possible symptoms of GvHD include:

  • rashes
  • dry or itchy skin
  • joint pain
  • dry eyes or mouth
  • diarrhea
  • jaundice
Rogue stem cell clinics

Beware of stem cell therapy from “rogue” clinics before the treatment has undergone full clinical testing and approval. Such clinics take advantage of people in search of a cure by using false cell preparations or other misleading techniques. Treatments from these rogue clinics can result in serious side effects, ranging from infection to paraplegia.

Early research suggests that stem cells may have a higher healing rate than other UC treatments. But there’s still not enough high-quality research to draw a conclusion. Stem cells may become a mainstream treatment for UC, but the technology and clinical backing aren’t available just yet.

When making your treatment decisions, it’s important to consider that everyone experiences the condition differently and with varying levels of severity.

Medications to treat UC vary depending on the severity of your condition. These may include the following:

In severe cases, a doctor may recommend surgery to treat or prevent complications of UC, like colorectal cancer or toxic megacolon.

Stem cell therapy is a potential treatment for UC, especially if conventional medications and therapies don’t work. But stem cell treatments aren’t available on a mainstream level just yet.

For severe cases of UC that don’t respond to treatment, a doctor may suggest you enroll in a clinical trial for stem cell therapy. You may consider reviewing the current list of clinical trials to discuss further with a doctor.

It’s important to follow a doctor’s advice for UC treatment. If a clinic offers a stem cell treatment that sounds too good to be true, or if it’s unregulated by the FDA, it’s best to stay away.