3 Apr 2017

The risks of unproven stem cell treatments

From Nine To Noon, 9:05 am on 3 April 2017

An expert in stem cell treatment is warning of dodgy operators in New Zealand offering unproven and potentially dangerous treatments.

Auckland University Medical School lecturer Bronwen Connor's warning comes after a recently-released scientific paper documented a case of three women in the United States who were blinded by an experimental treatment for macular degeneration. 

She said many people had stem cell therapy in the belief it was scientifically valid, but that was not often the case.

Dr Connor told Nine To Noon the cells used most often for the treatments were known as adipose cells, which were obtained from fat tissue in the body. They were popular because they could be obtained from a patient by liposuction, isolated out, then re-injected for supposed therapeutic use.

"Adipose stem cells obviously have a very important job, but predominantly their job is to make bone and cartilage. They also do have some anti-inflammatory properties. But they, to date, have not been shown to have any potential or ability to generate brain cells, for example, or new kidney cells or heart cells."

Websites for clinics offering the treatments listed up to 20 or 30 different types of diseases, disorders or conditions that one source of cells could supposedly treat. That was worrying, she said. 

Adipose stem cells might be the right choice to help repair cartilage damage in the knee. "However, it wouldn't be your stem cell choice if you ... had Parkinson's disease and you were going to try and replace some of those lost cells in your brain."

Dr Connor said people needed to be sceptical and check if, for example, there had been any human clinical trials involving the treatment.

"There are always dangers around treatments that we haven't taken out long-term and which there haven't been sufficient rigorous human clinical trials undertaken [on]. This is the purpose of clinical trials, to see what is the safety aspect and the efficacy of this procedure."

She advised people to think about it in terms of medicines and drugs that people were used to taking, like aspirin. "If you inject yourself with a stem cell population and you have a bad side effect, you can't get those cells out. So ... we really need to know what those cells are going to do long-term and what any potential risk is, because they cannot be retrieved."

The Ministry of Health did not regulate stem cell therapy in this country because the cells were not regarded as medicine. She said it was a grey area, because cells were being taken from a patient and re-injected into the same patient with their consent. "But really, moving forward in the next 10 to 20 years,  we're going to see more and more of these type of therapies that don't involve a pill or a tablet or our traditional thought of a medicine, and we really need to get regulations around that type of therapy." 

She had spoken to people who paid large sums of money for the treatments.

"When I questioned them a little bit more ... did it help, they would sort of sheepishly say 'well, no not really'."

Dr Connor said clinics offering the treatments often emphasised the benefits according to the scientific literature, but it might be benefits in animals - not from human trials. She wanted quality control addressed and standardised procedures, along with safety and efficacy. 

Dr Connor wanted to see clinical trials of many of the therapies, as they had potential. "Our fear is that, as with the three women with the macular degeneration, is that anything that goes wrong will really hinder the field because people will just see it as stem cell therapy."