Stem cell treatments have the potential to help people improve their lives and overcome illness and disease. However, not all of them are deemed safe, and some have awful risks and consequences.
This doesn’t mean all stem cell treatments are bad, but it does mean you should know what you’re getting yourself into before trying one yourself.
What are stem cells?
Let’s start with the most basic question: what is a stem cell? Stem cells are cells that have the ability to develop into specialized cells throughout the body. Not all cells are the same, and they definitely don’t perform the same function.
There are blood cells, fat cells, muscle cells, nerve cells, etc. And what stem cells can do is become one of these specialized types of cells. This is done to replace cells that are either damaged or have died. Stem cells can also divide and multiply into more stem cells.
How many stem cells are there?
Scientists have discovered three stem cell groups: embryonic, adult, and induced pluripotent stem cells. Embryonic stem cells are found in the embryo, and they are what’s called “pluripotent”, meaning they can develop into any type of cell throughout the body.
Adult stem cells are found in people and can provide their bodies with new cells when old ones become damaged or die off. These cells are not pluripotent.
Instead, adult stem cells are “multipotent.” This means adult stem cells taken from a specific group of cells can only develop into that same group. For example, blood stem cells will develop into blood cells. Skin stem cells will develop into skin cells, etc.
Finally, induced pluripotent stem cells, or iPS cells, are cells which scientists create in the laboratory, using adult cells and engineering them to develop back into stem cells. They are similar to embryonic stem cells in that they are pluripotent.
That is, they have the potential to develop into specific cell types.
What is stem cell treatment?
So, what is stem cell treatment? It’s a form of treatment that uses stem cells in order to treat permanently damaged cells, tissues, and organs. By introducing stem cells, it is said to help generate new cellular growth and reverse the damage.
For example, adult stem cell treatments include blood stem cells for people who have blood conditions, or even cancer. Adult skin cell treatments are sometimes used to treat serious burns, too.
This all seems well and good, right? What seems to be the problem? Well, there’s still a lot of research that needs to be done to understand the safety, efficacy and long-term ramifications of stem cell treatments.
And unfortunately, some doctors are playing with stem cells without enough scientific backing. What’s worse, they are making big promises and claims, without any real scientific evidence to back up their claims. As a result, they’re hurting their patients in serious ways.
When stem cell treatment is dangerous
Remember how adult stem cells are found in specific areas of the body, like blood, skin, muscle, etc. Well, there are also stem cells in fat, which are called adipose tissue-derived stem cells.
And because they are derived from fat tissue, these stem cells are only safe and effective if they are used in matching tissues.
Unfortunately, many doctors ignore this fact and are not waiting for more research to understand how to use adipose tissue-derived stem cells. Instead, some doctors use them to repair eye problems in patients – all to deleterious ends.
Take Doris Tyler, for example. She’s a 78-year old woman who was slowly going blind due to macular degeneration. She decided to seek treatment at the Cell Surgical Network, based in California, which claimed macular degeneration can be not only treated but cured, using stem cell treatment.
The doctors told Tyler that at the very least, the treatment would do nothing. In the first month after the treatment, she lost vision in her left eye. The next month, she couldn’t see out of her right eye either.
What had the doctors done wrong? It’s difficult to say absolutely what went wrong during the procedure. However, what is known is that in this $9,000 procedure, doctors took fat from Tyler’s belly, using liposuction, spun it inside a centrifuge, and then injected these fat-derived stem cells into her eye. The following day, these stem cells were also injected into her right eye.
In an article published in the New England Journal of Medicine, it was clear that Tyler had “paid for a procedure that had never been studied in a clinal trial [and which] lacked sufficient safety data…”
The report continued to say that the devastating outcome wasn’t due the injection itself, but to what was injected, namely, adipose-derived stem cells.
And as stem cell researcher and director of the Children’s Research Institute at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, Sean Morrison says, “It makes no sense to inject fat cells into somebody’s eye. There’s no chance based on what we understand about the biology that someone would benefit from that.”
Should you trust stem cell treatment?
According to Science Daily, “A number of current stem cell treatments already exists, although they are not commonly used because they tend to be experimental and not very cost-effective.” As we’ve seen, this was the case with Doris Tyler.
Even the FDA called out stem cell clinics and their shoddy marketing practices. In their statement, the FDA said, “Cell-based regenerative medicine holds significant medical opportunity, but we’ve also seen some bad actors leverage the scientific promise of this field to peddle unapproved treatments that put patients’ health at risk.”
So, on the one hand, stem cell treatments have a lot of potential. But without the right knowledge and understanding, this is a practice that can go very, very badly.
If you’re curious about stem cell treatments, research the treatment you are seeking and ask yourself, along with the medical community and your doctor if there is any scientific evidence that the treatment you are seeking is both safe and effective.
It’s still a relatively new field and there’s still a lot of trial and error happening. Be sure you’re not part of this costly experiment.
Are there any alternatives to stem cell treatment?
Researchers proffer that exosomes might be a potential alternative to stem cell therapy. Exosomes are derived from stem cells, and studies say they can provide therapeutic benefits.
But considering that exosomes, like stem cell treatments, are still somewhat new, as is the research investigating them. Therefore, it’s best to approach this alternative with some caution, too.