Does Smoking Damage Stem Cells?

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Patients often ask questions about how best to optimize their stem cells. I guess another question is what not to do if you’re planning a stem cell procedure. A recent research study suggests that smoking is not a good idea and likely damages your stem cells.

Smoking Affects Multiple Body Systems

Not smoking cigarettes is considered the most preventable cause of death in the United States. In 1965, when 44% of American adults smoked, Congress required a warning to be put on the package of all cigarettes sold in the United States that stated, “Caution: Cigarette Smoking May Be Hazardous to Your Health.”

Thankfully, today, only 18% of Americans smoke cigarettes. We’ve also learned a lot more about what those health hazards are. There have been widespread awareness campaigns from TV to children’s science museums to get the word out. In 1971, Congress banned the advertising of cigarettes on television and radio. Here are some risks of tobacco:

  • Lung Cancer: Smoking is said to be responsible for 85% of this type of common cancer.
  • Throat Cancer: The leading cause of throat or larynx cancer is smoking tobacco.
  • Heart Disease: Approximately 20% of all deaths from heart disease are directly related to smoking cigarettes.
  • Complications of Pregnancy: These include miscarriage, stillbirth, premature birth, low birth weight, placental problems, and ectopic pregnancy.
  • Emphysema: This is when the tiny air sacs in your lungs get damaged, ultimately beyond repair.

In addition to these things, studies have shown that there are other lesser known but important risks associated with smoking that we have occasion to see in patients. One is chronic back pain. Smokers are three times as likely to develop chronic low back pain. Another is the additional risk that smokers incur with joint replacement. Specifically, cigarette smoking significantly increases the risks associated with hip and knee replacements. Smokers have a 53% greater chance of infection, a 161% greater chance of stroke, a 34% greater chance of pneumonia, and a 63% greater chance of one-year mortality!

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Does Smoking Affect Stem Cells?

Perhaps the least known risk of smoking may be the most significant—it’s effect on stem cells. Stem cells are the repairmen of the body. They work in the background all day every day as your body is in need of repair constantly. But what’s unique about stem cells is they’re not just repairmen; they’re the general contractor, and both orchestrate and fulfill every part of the repair process. Of course to do this, you need to be able to find what needs fixing! This process of stem cells being mobilized from a distant area and then finding what’s broken is called “homing.”

The Study

The new study set out to determine whether cigarette smoke affects mesenchymal stem cells from bone marrow (the kind we use). The researchers looked at stem cell function and homing. To do this they administered stem cells to two groups of guinea pigs. They exposed only one group to cigarette smoke, and then allowed the stem cells from both groups to infiltrate tissue before removing and culturing the stem cells. The stem cells that were not exposed to cigarette smoke functioned normally; however, the stem cells exposed to cigarette smoke had a significant decrease in normal function and “homing” ability.

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Smoking and Stem Cell Treatment

Other studies have shown that smoking damages stem cells. Previous research has shown that smoking reduces the ability of stem cells to turn into cartilage and also reduces the number of circulating stem cells. A piece of good news is, studies also show that it takes only about a month for your circulating stem cells to return to normal numbers after stopping smoking.

The upshot? Smoking is awful for your health. If you needed another reason to quit, damage to the cells that repair every part of your body should be good motivation. In the meantime, don’t smoke if you’re thinking about a stem cell procedure or even a joint replacement!

Chris Centeno, MD is a specialist in regenerative medicine and the new field of Interventional Orthopedics. Centeno pioneered orthopedic stem cell procedures in 2005 and is responsible for a large amount of the published research on stem cell use for orthopedic applications. View Profile

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NOTE: This blog post provides general information to help the reader better understand regenerative medicine, musculoskeletal health, and related subjects. All content provided in this blog, website, or any linked materials, including text, graphics, images, patient profiles, outcomes, and information, are not intended and should not be considered or used as a substitute for medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Please always consult with a professional and certified healthcare provider to discuss if a treatment is right for you.

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