Kim Kardashian and C.C. Sabathia—Stem Celebrities: Raising Awareness or Raising the Risk?

One of the easiest, and most shameless, ways of getting attention on social media is to drop celebrity names into the mix. So when you see that this blog includes references to both Kim Kardashian and Yankee’s baseball pitcher C. C. Sabathia you might conclude that that is what I’m trying to do.

A reasonable assumption, but happily a wrong one.

No, I mention these two high profile figures because they are stem celebrities; famous people who are making news because of their use of stem cells.

Kardashian is a fan of the stem cell facial

Kardashian is a fan of the stem cell facial

In the case of Ms. Kardashian (now Mrs. Kanye West), she prepared for her weekend nuptials by getting what US Magazine calls a “$500 stem cell facial”. The magazine goes on to describe the procedure as a “famed vegan stem cell serum,” which uses stem cells from a “marine plant, which are thought to firm and lift the skin.”

I would never suggest that Ms. Kardashian is wasting her $500 but there is no evidence that plant-based stem cells can actually achieve the results being attributed to them. But don’t take my word for it. Here’s what Dr. Ronald L. Moy, a cosmetic and plastic surgeon in Los Angeles, and the former President of the American Academy of Dermatology, had to say in an interview in FabFitFun (and I have to admit, I had a lot of fun researching this piece):

“While there’s evidence that human stem cells, when harnessed with growth factors, stimulate epidermal stem cells to thicken the skin, which leads to tightening, there’s no scientific evidence that plant-stem-cell growth factors work in the same way. After all, how could a plant cell have any effect on human skin?” 

Ms. Kardashian just wanted to look her best on her wedding day, and who would blame her. Yankee’s star C. C. Sabathia, on the other hand, wants more than to just look good on the pitcher’s mound, he wants to dominate the opposing team’s lineup. A recent injury to his knee is threatening that and so he has been getting cortisone shots and a stem cell injection.

It’s not clear what kind of stem cells Sabathia is getting, or how many and how often, but what is clear is that there are no clinical trials that show this kind of therapy is effective. In time we may learn that the use of certain stem cells may have an anti-inflammatory impact on knee injuries, or even – in the Holy Grail of some approaches – help restore damaged tissues and cartilage. But right now, we just don’t have any evidence to show that this kind of approach is both safe and effective.

The bulk of the danger with stories like these is not that the individuals involved are likely to be harmed (though they may be) but that the attention their famous names draw to stem cell therapies could lead others to copy their example, and undergo procedures for which there is no evidence to show they are safe and effective.

Like it or not, celebrities have a big impact on our behavior. A study published in The Journal of Pediatrics last year looked at 181 children in the UK and found that these kids ate more potato chips after watching TV ads that featured a well-known sports figure. If celebrities can help market potato chips, there’s no reason to believe they can’t also help market stem cells being sold as therapies.

Stem cells have extraordinary potential. Over the years supporters of stem cell research have been accused of hyping that potential, making claims that could not be met. We at the stem cell agency have worked hard to be level-headed and realistic in the way we talk about the research and the great progress that is being made.

The danger with stem celebrities is that their fame will drown that out and lead people to go in pursuit of very expensive treatments that don’t actually treat anything. Without adequate safety testing, these treatments may instead cause harm.

We have written a lot about this in the past, and doubtless will write more in the future as more and more clinics open up offering these unproven remedies. Here are a couple of excellent resources to go for information on the process of turning stem cells into therapies, and on stem cell tourism, traveling to other countries to get unproven therapies not available here.

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