Unproven “stem cell” therapy injuries are more common than we realized

Jaime Imitola, senior author of the paper and director of the Comprehensive Multiple Sclerosis Center at UConn Health

Here at CIRM we only fund clinical trials that meet the rigorous standards outlined by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). These requirements are not only necessary to properly evaluate how effective a potential treatment may be, but they are also important in fulfilling the Hippocratic Oath to “first, do no harm”.

The journey from the bench to the bedside for a potential treatment is one that is long, arduous, and often filled with setbacks. Unfortunately, there are those affected with various diseases that do not have the luxury of time. People who have suffered brain or spinal cord damage, or have been diagnosed with neurological disease, are often frustrated by the lack of treatments available to help them. That frustration can make them susceptible to the false promises made by predatory clinics, which operate outside of FDA oversight and offer “stem cell” treatments that are unproven and cost upwards of $50,000. In the midst of a global pandemic, some of these predatory clinics are even promoting false cures for COVID-19.

In an effort to better understand how often people gravitate to these predatory clinics, a phenomenon known as stem cell tourism, Dr. Jaime Imitola and a team of researchers at UConn Health conducted a nationwide survey of academic neurologists’ experiences in stem cell tourism complications. The study also evaluated the level of physician preparation to counsel and educate patients. These neurologists will typically have patients come to them asking for permission, a kind of “clearance” in their eyes, to get these unapproved stem cell treatments.

The results of the survey were very revealing. Of the neurologists who responded to the survey, one in four had a patient with complications related to stem cell therapy, which includes infections, strokes, spinal tumors, seizures, and even death. Additionally, 73% of neurologists responding to the survey said they felt that having more educational tools to discuss the issue with patients would be helpful.

In a press release, Dr. Imitola elaborated on the importance of this study.

“It is really shocking that only 28% of board-certified neurologists feel completely prepared to discuss this important issue with their patients…The ultimate goal of this research is to be able to determine the extent of the complications and the readiness of neurologists to counsel patients. All of us are interested in bringing real stem cells to the clinic, but this process is arduous and requires a great level of rigor and reproducibility.”

Dr. Imitola and his team also plan on starting a national patient registry, where physicians can report complications from stem cell tourism procedures. This would not only provide a better sense of the problem at hand, it would gather data that physicians could use to better educate patients.

The full results to this study were published in Annals of Neurology.

CIRM has produced a short video and other easy to digest information on questions people should ask before signing up for any clinical trial. You can find those resources here.

CIRM has also published findings in Stem Cells Translational Medicine that discuss the three R’s–regulated, reliable, and reputable–and how these can help protect patients with uniform standards for stem cell treatments .

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