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The cruelty of fraudulent stem cell therapy

Unethical companies are finding desperate patients who are willing to pay big money for unproven stem cell "treatments." This may harm not only patients, but stem cell research itself.

iStock_quackdoc.jpgUPDATE 01-30-10: In writing about what seems to be a clear case of medical abuse I did not note that there are legitimate scientists who continue to investigate the use of bone marrow cells as a vehicle for heart repair. My apologies to them. However, these therapies are still in the research stage and patients should only get them as part of a controlled clinical trial. The problem in differentiating research that is legitimate from that which isn't only highlights the need for a certification system for stem cell treatments.

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When someone e-mails the Stanford Institute for Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine, the note comes to me. So I get to see a lot of heartbreaking pleas for help from patients or family members. Sadly, although a few stem cell therapies (such as bone marrow transplantation) are available now and many are getting closer, most stem cell treatments - the miracle cures for multiple sclerosis, paralysis, Alzheimer’s disease, heart failure and many other conditions - remain in the future.

This morning I got a plea not for treatment, but for justice. The writer’s mother had been seen in Florida at a self-described stem cell clinic for a heart condition. The mother had been through multiple open heart surgeries and valve replacements. She had been in the hospital as recently as November, and was still so frail she could hardly walk herself to the restroom. Nonetheless, the clinic convinced her that they could treat her for $65,000, and in January she was taken to an “ill-equipped and poorly staffed” hospital in the Dominican Republic. The writer reports that his mother was dead within two hours of the treatment.

It’s hard to tell from the note, but most likely the stem cell “therapy” was an infusion of cells that may have come from bone marrow or other tissue. There used to be hope among some scientists that stem cells from bone marrow could colonize and repair heart tissue, but a few years ago Irving Weissman, MD (the director of Stanford Institute for Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine) and Robert Robbins, MD (the director of the Stanford Cardiovascular Institute) proved that this was not true. There are some promising studies going on at Stanford and elsewhere looking at the use of cardiac-specific stem cells to repair the heart, but these are not yet clinical treatments, and no responsible scientist now thinks that you can throw just any old stem cell into the heart and it will make anything better.

That hasn’t stopped companies around the world from claiming that they treat all sorts of disease with stem cells, for the right price. These companies are represented by doctors or nurses here, but the treatments are usually done overseas to avoid scrutiny by US authorities. Weissman is currently president of the International Society for Stem Cell Research (ISSCR), and one of his priorities is to establish a system that will review stem cell treatments so that patients and doctors can find out which are scientifically valid. Until that becomes a reality, however, desperate and vulnerable people are dealt another round of heartache, and the truly wonderful promise of stem cell therapy may be tarnished by quacks.

Photo from iStockphoto

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