A gambler’s odds are usually stacked against them but the possibility, however slim, of hitting the jackpot keeps bringing them back to the table. Now imagine, unbeknownst to them, the system is rigged so there’s a zero percent chance of any winnings. They’d essentially be giving their money away based on a false hope. Sadly, many desperate people looking for stem cell cures do exactly that.
Earlier this week, Cristin Severance, a Team10 TV news reporter in San Diego, investigated local stem cell clinics promising treatments for a number of chronic incurable diseases. Severance cites Stemgenex of La Jolla, which offers people with Parkinson’s disease the chance of improving their symptoms through a therapy using stem cells from their own fat. This opportunity comes at a cost – $15,000. According to stem cell expert Jeanne Loring of The Scripps Research Institute, there’s no prospect the treatment will work.
First, some background: Parkinson’s disease is an incurable neurodegenerative disorder that affects nearly a million people in the United States. The symptoms include tremors, slow movement, muscle rigidity and less facial expression. Parkinson’s occurs when nerve cells, or neurons, in the region of the brain that controls movement, die for reasons that remain unclear. Which leads us to the snag with Stemgenex’s treatment strategy. Dr. Loring, who is a CIRM-funded researcher, explains in the TV news segment:
“The cells they are giving these patients cannot help them. My stem cells [in my laboratory] make neurons of a certain type. The stem cells they are getting out of people’s fat can’t do that. They could never do it. They aren’t capable of it.”
But what about the positive video patient testimonials often posted on these clinics’ websites? Watch enough of them and you’ll notice a pattern: the patients are typically recorded shortly after the treatment with no long-term follow up and no published data in peer-reviewed medical journals. Loring points out the likely explanation for these seemingly successful treatments:
“There is something called a placebo effect…If you believe whatever you’re getting is going to help you then there’s a short period of time in which your body is convinced that it has helped you. But that goes away.”
A plausible approach to treating Parkinson’s is to start with so-called pluripotent stem cells, which have the potential to specialize into any cell type. With these cells in hand, scientists can generate the neurons that are lost in Parkinson’s – a feat Loring and others have accomplished. The next step is to inject these neurons into the brains of Parkinson’s patients to restore—hopefully—proper movement control. But first the researchers must gather enough evidence in animal studies to convince the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that this therapy is safe and effective enough to test in humans.
So what about people who need stem cell cures today, right now? The sobering truth is, there are very few stem-call based products approved by the FDA. Most of those involve blood stem cell transplantation for treating leukemia and some genetic blood disorders as well as the use of stem cells for skin and hair grafts and cartilage repair.
Still, more and more stem cell-based clinical trials are coming online and recruiting people with a wide range of diseases. Everyday at CIRM, we receive emails and phone calls from people looking for advice about these experimental stem cell treatments. Our main recommendation: carefully read an excellent online resource provided by the International Society for Stem Cell Research (ISSCR) called, A Closer Look at Stem Cell Treatments. In particular, the Things to Consider about Clinical Trials section includes a list of questions anyone thinking about participating in a stem cell trial should ask. It would be a good idea to get the answers in writing and discuss them with a physician you trust. That way, you can truly know your odds when forming a decision.