One of the most hotly debated topics in stem cell research is whether patients should be able to have easier access to unproven therapies using their own stem cells, at their own risk, and their own cost. It’s a debate that is dividing patients and physicians, researchers and lawmakers.
In California, a bill working its way through the state legislature wants to have warning signs posted in clinics offering unproven stem cell therapies, letting patients know they are potentially putting themselves at risk.
Texas is taking a very different approach. A series of bills under consideration would make it easier for clinics to offer unproven treatments; make it easier for patients with chronic illnesses to use the “right to try” law to take part in early-stage clinical trials (in the past, it was only patients with a terminal illness who could do that); and allow these clinics to charge patients for these unproven stem cell therapies.
Not surprisingly, the Texas bills are attracting some widely divergent views. Many stem cell researchers and some patient advocates are opposed to them, saying they prey on the needs of vulnerable people, offering them treatments – often costing thousands, even tens of thousands of dollars – that have little or no chance of success.
In an article on STATnews, Sean Morrison, a stem cell researcher at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, in Dallas, said the Texas bills would be bad for patients:
“When patients get desperate, they have a capacity to suspend disbelief. When offered the opportunity of a therapy they believe in, even without data and if the chances of benefit are low, they’ll fight for access to that therapy. The problem is there are fraudulent stem cell clinics that have sprung up to exploit that.”
Patients like Jennifer Ziegler disagree with that completely. Ziegler has multiple sclerosis and has undergone three separate stem cell treatments – two in the US and one in Panama – to help treat her condition. She is also a founding member of Patients For Stem Cells (PFSC):
“PFSC does not believe our cells are drugs. We consider the lack of access to adult stem cells an overreach by the federal government into our medical freedoms. My cells are not mass produced, and they do not cross state lines. An adult stem cell treatment is a medical procedure, between me, a fully educated patient, and my fully competent doctor.”
The issue is further complicated because the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) – which has regulatory authority over stem cell treatments – considers the kinds of therapies these clinics offer to be a technical violation of the law. So even if Texas passes these three bills, they could still be in violation of federal law. However, a recent study in Cell Stem Cell showed that there are some 570 clinics around the US offering these unproven therapies, and to date the FDA has shown little inclination to enforce the law and shut those clinics down.
UC Davis stem cell researcher – and CIRM grantee – Paul Knoepfler is one of the co-authors of the study detailing how many clinics there are in the US. On his blog – The Niche – he recently expressed grave concerns about the Texas bills:
“The Texas Legislature is considering three risky bills that would give free rein to stem cell clinics to profit big time off of patients by selling unproven and unapproved “stem cell treatments” that have little if any science behind them. I call one of these bills “Right to Profit” for clinics, which if these became law could get millions from vulnerable patients and potentially block patient rights.”
Ziegler counters that patients have the right to try and save their own lives, saying if the Texas bills pass: “chronically ill, no option patients in the US, will have the opportunity to seek treatment without having to leave the country.”
It’s a debate we are all too familiar with at CIRM. Every day we get emails and phone calls from people asking for help in finding a treatment, for them or a loved one, suffering from a life-threatening or life-altering disease or disorder. It’s incredibly difficult having to tell them there is nothing that would help them currently being tested in a clinical trial.
Inevitably they ask about treatments they have seen online, offered by clinics using the patient’s own stem cells to treat them. At that point, it is no longer an academic debate about proven or unproven therapies, it has become personal; one person asking another for help, to find something, anything, to save their life.
Barring a dramatic change of policy at the FDA. these clinics are not going to go away. Nor will the need of patients who have run out of options and are willing to try anything to ease their pain or delay death. We need to find another way, one that brings these clinics into the fold and makes the treatments they offer part of the clinical trial process.
There are no easy answers, no simple solutions. But standing on either side of the divide, saying those on the other side are either “heartless” or “foolish” serves no one, helps no one. We need to figure out another way.