Stem cell research is on the tip of everyone’s tongue and regularly in the news, but a panel of British health officials warns that a global crop of unlicensed clinics is taking advantage of all the publicity.
Clinics in places as varied as Mexico, Thailand, Germany, Russia and China offer stem cell therapies with high price tags and little clinical evidence to back them up. Because such clinics are not illegal, experts in the emerging field of regenerative medicine are combating the misinformation with a guide to good quality treatment.
If you are thinking about trying stem cell therapy for anything from autism to diabetes to lupus, it might be worth your while to peruse the Task Force on Unproven Stem Cell Treatments’ website, part of The International Society for Stem Cell Research. Five of their tips:
1. “There are different types of stem cells – each with their own purpose”
While embryonic stem cells that only exist in the first few days of development are able to create many different types of “daughter cells,” most stem cells in a fully-formed body are tissue specific. That means that blood-forming stem cells create blood cells; bone-forming stem cells create bone cells. Something is wrong if a clinic is treating one part of your body with stem cells that originated in a different part of your body.
2. “Just because people say stem cells helped them doesn’t mean they did.”
Many of the clinics offering unrecognized treatments offer extensive “testimonial” pages. But there are many reasons why someone may feel better after a stem cell treatment. The ‘placebo effect’ is one, but there are also natural changes in the lifespan of a chronic condition. For example, parents who swear a treatment cured their daughter of autism may instead be noticing her natural progression as she matures or undergoes behavioral modification therapy.
3. “Just because stem cells came from your body doesn’t mean they are safe.”
As soon as cells are extracted from your body, they can be manipulated and can lose their ability to curb growth, similar to cancer cells. So even though the cells you are treated with may be your own, they are substantially different. In a few cases, reintroduced stem cells caused tumors to develop.
4. “Currently, there are very few widely accepted stem cell therapies.”
With the exception of tissue and bone grafting, a few immune disorders and blood cancers like leukemia, there are no diseases for which stem cell therapies are a reliable treatment. For other conditions, especially those labeled incurable by most of the medical establishment, stem cell therapy is experimental at best.
5. “An experimental treatment offered for sale is not the same as a clinical trial.”
They may be experimental, but treatments offered at for-profit clinics are not necessarily controlled, prescreened for dangers or subject to the same ethical sanctions as a high quality research study or clinical trial. Ask to see reviews by independent boards or regulatory agencies. If there are none, consider the downsides of this lack of accountability.