Dream Alliance: photo courtesy Daily Telegraph, UK
On Friday I was faced with the real possibility that a horse had made an ass out of me.
Over the years we have written many articles about the risks of unproven stem cell therapies, treatments that have not yet been shown in clinical trials to be safe and effective. Often we have highlighted the cases of high profile athletes who have undergone stem cell treatments for injuries when there is little evidence that the treatments they are getting work.
Well, on Friday I saw an athlete who bounced back from a potentially career-ending injury to enjoy an amazing career thanks to a stem cell treatment. I wondered if I was going to have to revise my thoughts on this topic. Then my wife pointed out to me that the athlete was a horse.
We had been watching the movie Dark Horse, a truly delightful true story about a group of working class people in a Welsh mining village who bred and raised a horse that went on to great success as a race horse – often beating out thoroughbreds that were worth millions of dollars.
At one point the horse, Dream Alliance, suffered an almost fatal injury. Everyone assumed his career was over. But thanks to a stem cell treatment he was able to return to the track and became the first horse to win a major race after undergoing stem cell surgery.
It shouldn’t be too surprising that stem cells can help heal serious injuries in horses, the researchers at UC Davis have been using them to help treat horses for years – with great success. The danger comes in then assuming that just because stem cells work for horses, they’ll work for people. And that if they can cure one kind of injury, why not another.
That thought was driven home to me on Saturday when I was giving a talk to a support group for ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease. ALS is a nasty, rapidly progressive disease that attacks the motor nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord, destroying a person’s ability to move, eat, speak or breath.
One person asked about a clinic they had been talking to which claimed it might be able to help them. The clinic takes fat from the person with ALS, isolates the stem cells in the fat and injects it back into the person. The clinic claims it’s been very effective in treating injuries such as torn muscles, and that it also works for other problems like Parkinson’s so it might help someone with ALS.
And that’s the problem. We hear about one success story that seems to prove stem cells can do amazing things, and then we are tempted to hope that if it works for one kind of injury, it might work for another, or even for a neurodegenerative disease.
And hope doesn’t come cheap. The cost of the procedure was almost $10,000.
If you have a disease like ALS for which there is no cure, and where the life expectancy is between two to five years, you can understand why someone would be tempted to try anything, no matter how implausible. What is hard is when you have to tell them that without any proof that it works, and little scientific rational as to why it would work, that it’s hard to recommend they try using their own fat cells to treat their ALS.
At CIRM we are investing more than $56.5 million in 21 different projects targeting ALS. We are hopeful one of them, Clive Svendsen’s research at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, will soon get approval from the FDA to start a clinical trial.
Much as we would like to believe in miracles, medical breakthroughs usually only come after years of hard, methodical work. It would be great if injecting your own fat-derived stem cells into your body could cure you of all manner of ailments. But there’s no evidence to suggest it will.
The movie Dark Horse shows that for one horse, for one group of people in a small Welsh mining village, stem cells helped create a happy ending. We are hoping stem cells will one day offer the same sense of hope and possibility for people battling deadly diseases like ALS. But that day is not yet here.