Reuters recently reported on the raid of a stem-cell clinic in Hungary. This is welcome news, if the allegations are correct, but really is only scratching the surface of this problem – clinics offering dubious stem cell therapies to desperate patients. And in fact this is only one manifestation of a far greater problem – the quack clinic. They represent a serious problem for patients, doctors, and health care regulation.
Stem Cell Clinics
There is a very disturbing trend in the last few years – the proliferation of clinics offering stem cell therapy for a variety of serious, often incurable, diseases such as spinal cord injury, ALS, Parkinson’s disease, and other neurological disorders. These clinics claim to improve and even cure these diseases by injecting stem cells into the spinal cord or other parts of the body. Treatments typically cost 20-25,000 dollars, plus travel expenses, for a single treatment.
The problem is that these clinics do not have any published evidence that their treatments are valid. There is good reason to think that they are not – stem cell technology is simply not at the point yet where we can use them to cure such diseases. There are many technical hurdles to be overcome first – knowing how to control the stem cells, to get them to survive and become the types of cells necessary to have the desired therapeutic effect, and also figuring out how to keep them from growing into tumors. Basic issues of safety have not yet been sorted out.
So in essence what these clinics are claiming is that they are years, perhaps decades, ahead of the rest of the world. And yet they have no science to show for it. They should be able to produce dozens of studies demonstrating their technology, but they can’t.
Further, they should ethically be giving such treatments as part of clinical research, to establish their safety and efficacy, but they haven’t. What little information we have comes from outside observation. For example, Bruce Dobkin published a review of cases at one Chinese stem cell clinic. He concludes:
The phenotype and the fate of the transplanted cells, described as olfactory ensheathing cells, are unknown. Perioperative morbidity and lack of functional benefit were identified as the most serious clinical shortcomings. The procedures observed did not attempt to meet international standards for either a safety or efficacy trial. In the absence of a valid clinical trials protocol, physicians should not recommend this procedure to patients.
In other words – we don’t even know what the clinic doctors are injecting into patient and what happens to the cells, if any are even present. There are risks to the procedure without any evidence of benefit. And the clinic is not following standard ethical procedures for experimental treatments.