In a comfortably furnished room at The Medical City in Pasig City, Metro Manila, Inaki Ugarte, looks out the window and smiles. “I was diagnosed with liver cancer in 2004. By the time I was ready to have a liver transplant, they found out that it had already spread to my lungs,” he says. “The doctors gave me about 3 to 4 months to live.”
They told him that over a year ago. Today, the 65-year old businessman is enjoying an extended lease on life, thanks to the very promising field of Regenerative Medicine.
The Patient as Healer
Regenerative Medicine is an innovative program that involves the engineering of living cells, tissues and organs to preserve and enhance organ function and improve the quality of life. Proponents of the treatment say it can be used to prevent disease and maintain wellness, as well as restore organ function lost or impaired due to disease, injury, or aging.
It is a procedure that allows the patient to, quite literally, be his own healer.
The key lies in stem cells ~ “master cells,” ~ which have the ability to grow into any one of the body’s 200 cell types or sensitized to attack diseased cells, including malignant tumors. They can replicate themselves many times over and theoretically, do so without limit, so long as the person is alive.
Therein lays the power of the treatment. “We’re working with the patient’s own living cells. That’s what makes this different from other treatments using conventional, often toxic, drugs and devices,” explains Dr. Samuel Bernal, consultant adviser on Regenerative Medicine for The Medical City.
Mr. Ugarte was initially advised by doctors in Singapore to undergo a liver transplant. He declined, knowing that the likely donors would be his own children. Friends and relatives then referred him to The Medical City, a pioneer in this new medical field.
The unique properties of stem cells have spurred worldwide interest in research on possible treatment for disease such as cancer, kidney failure, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, spinal cord injury, stroke, burns, heart disease, diabetes, osteoarthritis, and rheumatoid arthritis. With stem cell treatment, healthy unspecific or undifferentiated cells are extracted from the patient and, under complex laboratory conditions, induced to transform into cells with highly specialized functions.
These are then reintroduced into the body as organ repair agents or, as in Mr. Ugarte’s case, cancer-fighting cells. “Instead of relying on toxic chemicals to combat disease or donated organs to restore lost function, we’re using the patients’ cells to combat their cancers or regenerate their own organs,” explains Bernal.
“But the purpose of Regenerative Medicine is not only to treat patients who are already ill but also prevent disease,” says Dr. Bernal. Thus, wellness and aesthetic applications of Regenerative Medicine are also available.
While research into Regenerative Medicine forges on, Dr. Bernal stresses that the patient’s wellbeing is the doctor’s foremost concern. “This is not an academic exercise. This is about making patients’ lives better.”
The Patient as Partner
Indeed, with the ever-growing range of treatments available, constant dialogue between patient and doctor allows each to consider the unique circumstances of the case, and agree on a plan of care most appropriate to these circumstances. With Regenerative Medicine, the approach is even more personalized, as it responds to the patient’s uniqueness at the level of his own cells.
Having completed six treatment sessions, Mr. Ugarte proudly reports his AFP count (alpha fetoprotein, an indicator of the presence of cancer cells) is down to 110 from a high of 42,000. What the charts don’t show is a bright confidence in the future. “I just keep feeling better and better,” he says.
About The Medical City
The Medical City is a JCI-accredited private tertiary hospital with the mission of putting the patient at center stage and delivering service of great worth. It offers diagnostic and treatment services that address a broad range of diseases using state-of-the-art technology such as computed tomography, magnetic resonance imaging and cardiac catherization and interventional services.
It has a regular medical staff of 350 physicians, all of whom are experienced, recognized and established experts in their various fields of specialization. They are complemented by 610 visiting consultants. This core of professionals is supported and assisted by a 1,400-strong human resource complement, composed of administrative, finance and support services.
Cathy S. Babao Guballa is a Corporate Communications Consultant with The Medical City. She was previously Editor in-Chief of “Health Today” a regional health magazine distributed in several Asian countries.
Concurrently, she is the parenting columnist for the Philippine Daily Inquirer, the Philippine’s most widely-read newspaper.