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Stem Cells, Worth the Wait

Stem Cells, Worth the Wait

Headlines call it a miracle: In the well-respected medical journal, The Lancet, Canadian researchers reported that 23 people with debilitating multiple sclerosis had no relapses of their condition for up to 13 years after receiving stem cell therapy. And at Stanford University School of Medicine, clinical trial doctors injected modified human adult stem cells (they came from bone marrow) directly into the brains of 18 chronic stroke patients. Chronic stroke patients are those left with continuing disabilities six months (and longer) following a stroke. After receiving the stem cell injections, limbs woke up and wheelchairs were discarded.

Stem cell treatments, already in use for a small number of health conditions, do hold tremendous promise. We’re excited, especially about breakthroughs for people with MS, heart conditions, stroke, diabetes, and vision loss. But one Harvard expert has pointed out, “The only stem cell therapies that have been proven safe and effective are those constituting what is known as bone marrow transplantation for treatment of some cancers.” Most claims for stem cell treatments are, well, frauds. That doesn’t stop clinics from charging from $5,000 to $25,000 per treatment, with some patients reportedly racking up bills over $100,000.

Researchers from the University of California, Davis, found at least 351 companies in the U.S. are operating around 570 clinics that offer unapproved (and unproved) stem-cell procedures. They tout therapies for everything from brain disorders and heart disease, to spine injuries, breathing problems, autism, cerebral palsy, joint problems, even cosmetic procedures like facelifts!

And more and more people are opting for risky treatments—here and abroad—for serious medical conditions that have no cure. That’s why it’s important to sort fact from fiction. Here’s what you need to know about stem cell treatments.

Research into their use as a therapy is especially advanced in:

  • Diabetes: One day stems cells may be able to create new, insulin-producing beta cells that can control blood sugar.
  • When it comes to treating heart disease, stem cells may rebuild muscle damaged during a heart attack.
  • In cases of macular degeneration, stem cells may one day regrow light-sensing cells in the eye.
  • And as we mentioned, stems cells have been used in trials for treatment of MS and stroke.

Experimental and unproved therapies can carry big risks. In that Canadian study in which 24 people with MS received the therapy, 23 got big benefits, but one died. Experts who commented on the therapy in The Lancet called the results impressive, but said the death rate was “unacceptably high.”

An American stroke survivor’s story was published in the New England Journal of Medicine: He spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on stem cell treatments in China, Argentina and Mexico and ended up with a painful growth on his spine.

Considering stem cell therapy? Ask these questions.  Don’t base your decision on advertising or stories of other patients. The International Society for Stem Cell Research recommends you ask the treatment provider: What’s the treatment routine for my specific disease or condition? Is this therapy part of a clinical trial? (If not, taking part could make you ineligible for stem-cell studies in the future.) What are the proven benefits (who proved them and where) and what are the risks? Is the clinic prepared to handle serious side effects, such as an allergic reaction? For more on what to ask and what to know, we highly recommend the organization’s consumer website at www.closerlookatstemcells.org.

Steer clear of unproved therapies. Many Americans now live within a 15-minute drive of a stem-cell clinic. Plenty more people head abroad for “stem cell tourism” in places such as the Caribbean, Latin America, China, India, and nations of the former Soviet Union. There’s no proof that what clinics in the US or abroad offer is safe or effective unless results have been duplicated by another reliable (stressing reliable) group. Fraud is everywhere, so do your homework!

Medically reviewed in August 2018.

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