Regenerative medicine such as stem cell therapy has cast a ray of hope into many patients' lives. Stem cell clinics, however, do not always offer patients the most effective treatments. According to a recent Nature article:
Many of the treatments such clinics offer — injecting a patient's own stem cells back into his or her body in a bid to treat conditions ranging from Parkinson's disease to spinal-cord injuries — are at best a waste of money, and at worst dangerous. "There's real potential to damage the legitimacy of the field," says Timothy Caulfield, who studies health law and policy at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada.
The potential danger of these clinics is clear: In May, Europe's largest stem-cell clinic was shut down after its treatments were linked to a child's death.
Some stem cell researchers are frustrated with these clinics' proliferation and the FDA's relatively lax regulation. Last June, the International Society for Stem Cell Research (ISSCR) launched a website dedicated to providing patients with fact-based, on-demand analysis of the treatments that these clinics offer. When the ISSCR approached clinics asking for information on their services, however, many cited their lawyers, challenging the society's right to question them. The ISSCR, whose resources were too limited to risk litigation, backed down:
At the society's annual meeting in Toronto, Canada, this month, Irving Weissman, a stem-cell researcher at Stanford University in California, turned to the audience for advice. "What should we do?" he asked. "Should we risk litigation?" The audience could not come to a consensus, and the programme is still on hold.
Researchers still seek a way to educate patients on the dangers of unproven treatments, worrying that in the meantime patients will seek information from unreliable sources or from societies with potential conflicts of interests due to close connections with the regenerative-medicine industry.
For additional reading, my colleague Krista Conger delved into this topic in a recent Stanford Medicine piece.