Stem Cell Clinics: Therapy of the Future or Blatant Cash Grab?

A new study documents the activities and ownership of stem cell clinics throughout the Southwest US, and it isn’t pretty.

I want to start with a compelling narrative being told to patients across the country. It goes like this: we physicians are going to use cutting-edge science to unlock the healing potential of your OWN cells to treat your chronic medical conditions. Sounds amazing right?  And it can all be yours for just about $5000 per treatment.

I’m talking about stem cell therapy. Stem cells are cells with the potential to differentiate into a variety of other cells or tissues and, to date, the FDA has approved their use in a number of hematologic malignancies and hematologic genetic conditions… and that’s it.

Stem cells are not FDA-approved for joint pain, cataracts, depression, autism, dementia, or heart disease and yet hundreds of stem cell clinics around the country are offering them for just these conditions, as shown in this study, appearing in Stem Cell Reports, that documents the activities of 169 stem cell businesses in the United States.

These for-profit companies charge patients thousands of dollars for the unproven treatments. Patients bear the brunt of the costs as most insurance companies won’t cover the therapies.

And, up until recently, this was basically unregulated, though the FDA has started to change that.

Diabetes? There’s a stem cell treatment for that.

It’s just completely untested.

The Stem Cell Reports study characterized 169 stem cell clinics in the Southwestern US to systematically measure just what they are selling and who is running them.

As you can see here, the range of conditions being treated is incredibly broad, with inflammatory and orthopedic conditions topping the list.

Hello, I’m naturopathic Dr. Smith and I’ll be injecting you with stem cells today????

Who’s running these places?  The majority are run by MDs though there is a smattering of other providers as you can see here.

What raises my hackles a bit are the clinics where the training of the provider doesn’t match up with the services offered.  It’s one thing for an orthopedic surgeon to offer stem cell injections into arthritic knees, but the authors documented clinics run by cosmetic surgeons offering treatment for lung disease and autism.

Are these clinicians providing cutting-edge treatments, or is it a shameless cash grab?  Maybe both?

These treatments are not entirely benign. In 2017, several patients went blind after their own adipose-derived stem cells were injected into their eyes.

Infection remains a risk as well, as the cells are removed from the body, processed, and reinjected.

There is a reason we demand well-conducted, randomized clinical trials before we embrace new therapies. In no small part, it’s to ensure that we are abiding by our Hippocratic oath to first, do no harm. Can these providers honestly say they are meeting that standard?

Look, I’m not saying stem cell therapies are modern-day snake oil. They really may work.  But we don’t know if they work and we don’t fully understand the risks. Why are certain individuals, MDs, willing to expose patients to risks they don’t fully understand?  Well, I can think of about 5000 reasons.

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