Stem cell therapy has had a controversial and short history. From the promise of cures for diseases like cancer and Alzheimer’s Disease, to the conservative outrage over the use of stem cells from aborted fetuses, to the breakthroughs in using stem cells to allow non-ambulatory stroke victims be able to move and even walk again, the stem cell industry has been fraught with contention.
However, the hope of the miracles that stem cell therapy might offer hasn’t stopped Americans from looking for a medical treatment that could make their lives better; many go in search of treatment in countries where stem cell regulations are far more lax. Places like Latin America and China are a veritable free market in terms of stem cell therapy, and it seems that the demand for stem cell treatments is now such that an underground of unregulated stem cell therapies is cropping up in the United States at an alarming rate.
The unregulated stem cell industry was documented last week in a new study in the journal, Cell. One of the authors of the study, a stem cell researcher at UC Davis, commented on the American stem cell industry.
“Many people in larger metropolitan areas can just drive 15 minutes to find a clinic offering these kinds of services instead of, say, traveling to Mexico or the Caribbean.”
Stem cell studies have been underway for the past few decades, albeit with little success. In fact, the only stem cell treatment that is not considered “experimental,” is a bone marrow transplant. However, the push continues to find what sort of “miraculous” treatments stem cell therapies might expose. Stem cells themselves are quite amazing. Considered an undifferentiated cell, stem cells are capable of morphing into one of many specialized cells in an animal or person, including brain, embryonic and blood cells. Additionally, stem cells are capable of dividing indefinitely in an organism, leading research scientists to believe that they have unlimited potential for biological repair mechanisms. Think of them as the possible “fix-all” for diseases and mutations in the body.
At least, that’s the hope for stem cells.
To this point, successes with stem cells outside of bone marrow transplants have been small and fleeting. However, that hasn’t dampened the spirits of those with debilitating diseases to hope against hope that an unregulated stem cell treatment might be the miracle they have been praying for. Of course, it is not only fatal and debilitating diseases that some of these unregulated stem cell clinics are offering to fix. Some of them claim that stem cell therapy can fix such nominal afflictions as male-pattern balding.
Leigh Turner, an associate professor at the University of Minnesota’s Center for Bioethics, discussed the concerns that these unregulated stem cell clinics pose, and the role that the FDA has played in their continued operation.
“No one’s taking meaningful regulatory action. Does that mean that people are getting access to safe and efficacious interventions or is there basically unapproved human experimentation taking place? How did this entire industry come into being in a country where stem cell-based interventions and the medical devices that produce them are supposed to be regulated by the FDA?”
The main issue that critics of unregulated stem cell clinics bring up is the lack of education concerning stem cells themselves by the patients. If someone is spending thousands and thousands of dollars on an unproven shot at a miracle, are they no more a rube than someone who visits a fortune teller with hopes of finding out about their future spouse or money woes? Is the unregulated stem cell clinic industry in the United States really no more than a high-tech snake oil scam?
The other worry about unregulated stem cell clinic treatments is that the large number of unsuccessful treatments will start to impact legitimate work that is being done with stem cells. If the growing perception in America is that stem cells are no more than a wild goose chase, will funding and donations to continue the research on something that really may turn out to be a biological silver bullet dwindle?
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