Injuries from stem cell therapy widespread

 

People who have suffered debilitating brain or spinal cord damage, or have been diagnosed with progressive neurological disease, are often frustrated by the lack of treatments available to help them. That frustration can make them easy targets for clinics that inject patients with stem cells. But most of these clinics are operating outside of the US Food and Drug Administration’s jurisdiction, and the treatments they offer are both unproven and very expensive.

“It is an unethical industry. They use fancy websites promising cures left and right, but which are nothing of the sort. They steal your money but give nothing in return.” says Jaime Imitola, senior author of the paper and director of Multiple Sclerosis Centre at UConn Health.

Patients often pay US$25,000 to US$50,000 in cash for procedures that claim to cure everything from multiple sclerosis to paralysis, but have no evidence to back them up. 

The clinics, which can operate in the US but are more commonly found in Mexico, China, Russia and other countries with less restrictive health regulations, entice patients to fly out for a week or two of spa-like treatment, physical therapy and injections of stem cells supposedly designed to cure multiple sclerosis, ALS, paralysis, or whatever other neurological impairment the person suffers from. 

The physical therapy often makes the patient feel better for a week or two. But there are no treatments that can reliably improve most of these diseases, and none using stem cells. 

Anecdotal stories have started to emerge of patients who have had these stem cell procedures and then developed serious and life-threatening side effects, from hepatitis to nerve pain to bizarre spinal cord tumours.

To better understand the impact of this stem cell tourism, a team of researchers lead by UConn Health conducted a nationwide survey of academic neurologists’ experiences in stem cell tourism complications. The survey also investigated the level of physician preparation to counsel and educate patients.

The results show that bad outcomes from stem cell tourism are much more common than anyone had realised. Of the neurologists who responded to the survey, one in four had had a patient with complications related to stem cell therapy. Patients who had suffered infections, strokes, spinal tumours, seizures, and even deaths were all reported. 

Stem cells hold the promise for patients, not just the desperate ones with terminal illnesses but also those who are looking for a natural solution where modern medicine has failed them. But research suggests that promises of therapies that will help them walk or see again, are misleading.

The University of Connecticut Stem Cell Core has contributed to the Connecticut stem cell initiative by providing a central source of technologies and materials for research on stem cells since 2006.

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