Why people seek out unproven and potentially unsafe stem cell treatments

Every day I field phone calls and emails from people looking for a stem cell therapy to help them cope with everything from arthritis to cancer. Often, they will mention that they saw an ad for a clinic online or in a local newspaper claiming they had stem cell therapies that could help fix anything and asking me if they are legitimate.

Even after I try to explain that the therapies these clinics are offering haven’t been tested in a clinical trial and that there’s scant evidence to show they are even safe let alone effective, I know that a good chunk of the callers are going to try them anyway.

Now a survey by the Mayo Clinic takes a deeper dive into why people are willing to put science aside and open up their wallets to go to predatory stem cell clinics for so-called “therapies”.

Dr. Zubin Master. Photo courtesy Mayo Clinic

In a news release Dr. Zubin Master, a co-author of the study, says many patients are lured in by hype and hope.

“We learned that many patients interested in stem cells had beliefs that are not supported by current medical evidence. For example, many thought stem cells were better than surgery or the standard of care.”

The survey asked 533 people, who had approached the Mayo Clinic’s Regenerative Medicine Therapeutic Suites for a consultation about arthritis or musculoskeletal problems, three questions.

  • Why are you interested in stem cell treatment for your condition?
  • How did you find out about stem cell treatment for your condition?
  • Have you contacted a stem cell clinic?

A whopping 46 percent of those who responded said they thought stem cell therapy would help them avoid or at least delay having to get a hip or knee replacement, or that it was a better option than surgery. Another 26 percent said they thought it would ease the pain of an arthritic joint.

The fact that there is little or no evidence to support any of these beliefs didn’t seem to matter. Most people say they got their information about these “therapies” online or by talking to friends and family.

These “therapies” aren’t cheap either. They can cost thousands, sometimes tens of thousands of dollars, and that comes out of the patient’s pocket because none of this is covered by insurance. Yet every year people turn to these bogus clinics because they don’t like the alternatives, mainly surgery.

There is a lot of promising stem cell research taking place around the US trying to find real scientific solutions to arthritic joints and other problems. The California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) has invested almost $24 million in this research. But until those approaches have proven themselves effective and, hopefully, been approved for wider use by the Food and Drug Administration, CIRM and other agencies will have to keep repeating a message many people just don’t want to hear, that these therapies are not yet ready for prime time.

A shot in the arm for people with bad knees

knee

Almost every day I get an email or phone call from someone asking if we have a stem cell therapy for bad knees. The inquiries are from people who’ve been told they need surgery to replace joints damaged by age and arthritis. They’re not alone. Every year around 600,000 Americans get a knee replacement. That number is expected to rise to three million by 2030.

Up till now my answer to those calls and emails has been ‘I’m sorry, we don’t have anything’. But a new CIRM-funded study from USC stem cell scientist Denis Evseenko says that may not always be the case.

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The ability to regenerate joint cartilage cells instead of surgically replacing joints would be a big boon for future patients. (Photo/Nancy Liu, Denis Evseenko Lab, USC Stem Cell)

Evseenko and his team have discovered a molecule they have called Regulator of Cartilage Growth and Differentiation or RCGD 423. This cunning molecule works in two different ways. One is to reduce the inflammation that many people with arthritis have in their joints. The second is to help stimulate the regeneration of the cartilage destroyed by arthritis.

When they tested RCGD 423 in rats with damaged cartilage, the rats cartilage improved. The study is published in the Annals of Rheumatic Diseases.

In an article in USC News, Evseenko, says there is a lot of work to do but that this approach could ultimately help people with osteoarthritis or juvenile arthritis.

“The goal is to make an injectable therapy for an early to moderate level of arthritis. It’s not going to cure arthritis, but it will delay the progression of arthritis to the damaging stages when patients need joint replacements, which account for a million surgeries a year in the U.S.”