Stem cell research has been able to achieve some incredible things in recent years. News stories herald miracle therapies for everything from diabetes, to heart disease and spinal injury. Whilst there has been a lot of progress within the scientific community, some of the claims being made threaten to tarnish the credibility of the field.
Many clinics all over the world are offering ‘miracle cures’ based on poor science, unrealistic hopes and unscrupulous practices.
A recent report in the Lancet Medical journal by a team of leading experts talked about the credibility of stem cell research being put at risk due to dodgy clinics peddling unproven cures for diseases.
Early hopes for stem cell therapies included providing cures for incurable diseases such as multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease. These early claims by some scientists, inflated by the media, caused desperate patients to turn to poorly regulated clinics for last ditch attempts at treating the disease. Many of these therapies were untested and ineffective, leaving desperate people to spend thousands of their own money without a positive outcome.
A recent example of this kind of practice is sited as the case of David Vannoni, a self proclaimed ‘stem cell expert’, who’s Stamina foundation in Italy, claimed to transform bone marrow cells into neural cells to cure nervous system diseases such as Parkinson’s. Vannoni was eventually convicted of conspiracy and fraud after years of legal battles. He had no formal scientific or doctoral training.
Unfortunately, this isn’t a one off case.
“It happens all over the world, including the United States,” said cell biologist Prof Giulio Cossu from the University of Manchester, who led the commission. “It is no longer the case that you go to India or China.”
The report advises patients to base any decision of whether the therapy is valid on if it is backed by any scientific documentation. If not, it should be a matter for concern. Another warning sign would be not being given any information on the specific type of stem cell that they are using, and where it is coming from.
The lack of follow up or results data should also be a red flag. Many of the ‘miracle cure’ clinics suffer from a lack of data to substantiate their claims, and are mainly formed on hopes and sparse anecdotal evidence.
Despite warnings about less scrupulous practices in the stem cell industry, there are areas where stem cell treatments can have a life changing impact. In particular these include diseases of the blood, and the skin.
There are also promising trials coming up in the treatment of Parkinsons disease. Unlike most other neurological diseases, such as MS, Parkinson’s is very localized and therefore easier to tailor therapies.
Whilst the report encourages the ongoing progression of stem cell therapy research, it warns that:
“Substantial rethinking of the social contract that supports such research and clinical practice in the public arena will be required,”