Stem Cell Clinics: Effective or Pricey False Hope?

Second in a two-part series about stem cells. See the first entry here.  

Aug. 13, 2019 — Beverly Hills plastic surgeon Mark Berman says he can offer 12,000 reasons people should consider getting stem cell therapy at one of the clinics he co-founded across the country. That’s the number of patients he says his 100-plus affiliated clinics have treated for conditions like knee pain, erectile dysfunction, asthma, congestive heart failure, stroke, and Parkinson’s disease. Sports figures have also publicized the therapies.

But a number of stem cell scientists say that these and other self-described stem cell clinics are misleading the public. The treatments, which often cost $5,000 to $20,000, have no proof of safety or effectiveness. In many cases, there’s no logical scientific reason to think they might work, they say. And the procedures, which involve moving cells from one part of the body to another, aren’t really even stem cell therapies, according to scientists at Harvard University, New York University, the University of California, Davis, Arizona State University, the University of Minnesota, and others.

Stem cell therapies often involve taking cells from one area, like the abdomen, spinning them in a centrifuge to concentrate the cells, and then reinjecting them into another part of the body, like the knee.

Offering these procedures “violates the standards of medical practice,” says Insoo Hyun, PhD, a bioethicist at Harvard and Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine in Cleveland, OH.

Berman says the procedures that he offers are safe but adds that his clinics stopped providing stem cell shots into the eyeball after a woman treated for macular degeneration, a cause of age-related vision loss, had retinal detachments and went blind. Several other women treated elsewhere for macular degeneration were also blinded. Other reports blame stem cell procedures, mostly performed outside the United States, for tumors, infections, and brain inflammation.

Hyun says it may sound harmless to move your own cells around, but not all cells are the same. “Your body’s stem cells — they’re found, they work, and they live in a very particular system,” he says. “When you transfer them out of that system, there’s no evidence they’re going to do anything except maybe cause harm because they’re in unfamiliar territory.”

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