By Robert Price
After his stroke in 2014, Gordie Howe, the hockey legend who died in June at the age of 88, flew to Mexico to have himself injected with stem cells. According to media reports, Howe’s health improved enough following the injections for him to make a public appearance.
Howe is one of the more notable people who sought stem cell treatment outside Canada. To read reports about medical tourism, one might assume the experimental treatments happening in other parts of the world are the salvation the sick and dying hope for. We might have similar luck dipping a toe into holy water. Both are faith healing.
The latest alert about stem cell therapies specifically the for-profit sort came via an analysis of therapies available in the U.S. In plain English, the analysis, published in Cell Stem Cell this year, found that clinics (profiteers) sell unapproved stem cell therapies (snake oil) directly to consumers (the sick and dying and those wanting their youth back) without much regard for how such products harm patients or misrepresent the science. The treatments fall outside the boundaries of what’s been approved, but these clinics continue to operate, unimpeded by regulation, the Hippocratic Oath, and, one presumes, conscience. U.S. regulators, the authors say, need to intervene in the market before anybody else gets hurt.
While many cosmetic stem cell therapies are certifiably useless, some experimental therapies have caused damage to desperate patients. The story that sets my stomach tossing is one about the woman who had unfiltered bone marrow stem cells injected into her brain. She had a stroke and died.
A cursory review of stem cell treatments available in the U.S. reads like a what’s-what of healing: better sight, better memory, stronger muscles, more limber joints, smoother complexion, stronger heart, bigger breasts. I count myself fortunate to have not needed a miracle cure. If I am diagnosed with cancer, Alzheimer’s, a stroke, heart disease, or any other life-altering or life-ending disease, I might be in desperate enough circumstances to surf the web for a state-of-the-art technology like the magic stem cell therapies some are selling to save my life. Who wouldn’t? Hope is a volatile material. Hope can make even cool, logic-bound people take hot-tempered, illogical measures.
Given how profiteers sell direct-to-consumer therapies available in the States (that’s the nice word for what these doctors offer), why hasn’t the U.S. government shut down these questionable clinics? With 50,000 of us travelling south each year for medical care, this isn’t a question Canadians should ask out of concern for our neighbours.
No doubt, stem cells therapies have great potential, and as a technology, stem cells may make life better for many people. But we’re not there yet. (Sorry, but positive testimony from patients who have paid tens of thousands of dollars for therapies doesn’t count.)
Until we do get there, we need regulators to move quickly and act dispassionately when determining what therapies are efficacious and safe to be level-headed when we’re not. With a field as complex and novel as stem cell research, oversight is more essential than ever.
That happens at the governmental level, far beyond reach of most of us. Individually, we can eliminate words like “cure” and “miracle” from our vocabularies, at least when we speak about medicine and science. I direct this injunction primarily at my colleagues in the media who cannot help themselves from grasping for an exclamatory headline. We might also ask for cautious language from lobby groups and hopeful others who usually see miracles in each new scientific development.
And scientists working in the field? They’re taught to speak carefully. Most do. It’s the shameless quacks, the profiteers and egotists who peddle premature, ill-conceived, and fraudulent therapies who need to be questioned by those who can ask the best questions: their colleagues. This is an instance when professional regulating bodies have a role to play in keeping patients safe from faith healers who call themselves doctors.
Robert Price is former Managing Editor of this publication. Follow him @pricerobertg.