Stem cell research in the US has been both promising and crippled. The potential outcomes of what could one day be possible with stem cells has been the focus of a media frenzy for the past two decades, leading most lay people to believe that we have already figured it out by now, and that all you need to do is inject some stem cells at the site of an injury and voila! Magic happens!
At the same time, stem cells have been the focus of great ethical controversy, one that stems from religiosity and scientific ignorance, leading to the crippling of the progression of stem cell research in many parts of the country (and the world, for that matter), particularly during the Bush Administration, which means that the scientific research lags far behind the expectations of the public. This is a very dangerous combination.
Patients seeking stem cell therapies for achy joints or shoulder injuries no longer need to hop a plane to Mexico or China. More than 550 clinics around the U.S. offer unproved interventions for sports injuries and conditions including autism, multiple sclerosis and Alzheimer’s disease.
This vast stem cell market has boomed in recent years, particularly for orthopedic applications such as easing joint pain or for facelifts and other cosmetic procedures. In one frequently advertised regimen a patient might have adult stem cells harvested from his own fat tissue and injected at an injury site, purportedly to speed recovery. Professional athletes including football stars Peyton Manning and Chris Johnson have reportedly used stem cell injections to help them get back onto the field.
Yet there is a darker side to the promise of these treatments. There is little systematic data about patients’ long-term outcomes—positive or negative—and in most cases there is no scientific evidence that these costly procedures work. Many of these cellular therapies may not do much of anything but there is also the serious risk that recipients of cell injections could develop serious complications “including blood clots or dangerous immune reactions,” says Paul Knoepfler, a stem cell researcher at the University of California, Davis, School of Medicine
These clinics are trying to circumvent the law, by claiming that they are eligible for an FDA approval exemption. That should be a red flag right there, and another one is the fact that they advertise directly to the public, and also profess to be able to treat children with cerebral palsy and autism. Desperate parents have always been a fountain of cash for con artists (Burzynski clinic, anyone?)
Skeptics need to be wary of these kinds of places, even more so than you odd alternative medicine retreats that claim that meditation and talking to dolphins will clean out your shakras and cure your lower back pain, or whatever such nonsense. These clinics have the facade of genuine science to hide behind, and rely on ignorance of current scientific progress to dupe patients into believing that these treatments are safe, effective and have been around for ages. The stem cell media frenzy has only helped them along in this regard.
Bad scientific reporting bears a large part of the responsibility as well, of course. But we also need to not fear pointing out this quackery just because, in different contexts, we happen to fully support stem cell research. This kind of quackery is far too dangerous to ignore.