The Stem Cell Hard Sell
Stem cell therapies are sold as a new wonder cure by an increasing number of private clinics. But concerns are growing that unproven and unregulated treatments are not risk free
Lesley Curwen investigates the scientific promise of human stem cells, cells with superpowers that can become many different types of cells in our bodies from muscle cells to brain cells. Some can even repair damaged tissues and there is enormous excitement that stem-cell based therapies could, in the future, transform medicine.
One procedure which is showing great promise for some patients with highly-active Multiple Sclerosis is HSCT. Lesley talks to Anne, a patient with MS, while she has a transplant of stem cells taken from her own bone marrow at London Bridge Hospital. The aim is to 'reboot' her faulty immune system after it has been deliberately destroyed by intense chemotherapy. Her consultant Dr Majid Kazmi, chief of cancer services at Guys and St Thomas's Hospital and a consultant haematologist at HCA Healthcare, did the first UK stem cell transplant for an MS patient over ten years ago.
Treatments using stem cells for MS, spinal cord injury, blindness, cancer, heart disease and arthritis are being carefully tested in clinical trials but it is early days and they remain experimental. However, as Lesley discovers, the optimism around stem cells could mean practice is jumping ahead of the science, leading to patients being harmed.
In the USA there has been an explosion in private clinics which sell "stem cell therapies" and regenerative medicine as a new wonder cure for a range of diseases and conditions. Professor Paul Knoepfler from the University of California Davis School of Medicine tells Lesley that the evidence base for such treatments is thin to non existent and some risky procedures are putting lives at risk. Hartley Hampton, a lawyer from Houston in Texas, describes how six clients were given stem cell injections for arthritis but ended up 'at death's door' when a contaminated product led to near-fatal infections. Galen Dinning tells Lesley that ambulance staff said he 'wouldn't have made it through the night' if he had not been taken to hospital. And we hear how three elderly American women were blinded when their own fat cells were injected into their eyes as a cure, they were told, for their macular degeneration. Dr Sean Morrison, professor of paediatrics at the University of Texas South Western, argues there is a strong placebo effect when people pay for treatments at commercial stem cell clinics. Patients provide enthusiastic testimonials about "how they can stand up out of their wheelchairs for the first time in years". When the patient dies, he says, you don't hear any more.
The International Society for Stem Cell Research has long been worried about the increase in direct-to-consumer stem cell and regenerative therapies.. Its Ethics Committee Chair, Professor Megan Munsie from Melbourne University says no one knows what is in the 'unproven treatments that are frankly, flooding the marketplace'.
In the UK there is growing concern about the increase in private clinics offering regenerative therapies. Ian McDermott, a consultant orthopaedic surgeon in London, says that all procedures have the potential to cause harm and tells Lesley that claims that injecting 'this magic pixie dust' are unconvincing and unscientific.
Professor Fares Haddad is an NHS hip and knee surgeon at University College Hospitals London and editor in chief of the Bone and Joint Journal. He says there is a massive gap between 'real science' and 'inappropriate premature clinical advertising of unproven therapies'. He tells Lesley Curwen about three patients he's treated who've been harmed by such therapies. Two had serious blood clots and one has an infection in the hip.
Lesley also hears from several sources a previously untold story about a woman who went blind in one eye after a botched stem cell injection in London.
Imogen Swann, the former head of regulation at the Human Tissue Authority confirms that there is a loophole in regulation which applies to procedures where someone's own cells are removed and then re-injected into the body without being substantially changed. This means that most of the cell products being injected are not regulated.
And Lesley discovers a new stem cell clinic with a London address which offers to treat children with autism for 9,500 pounds a time. Professor Declan Murphy, a leading authority on autism research at Kings College Hospital in London says he is horrified that such treatment could be offered in this country. He told Lesley there was no justification for such a painful procedure, for which there is little to no evidence, to be carried out in the UK.
Producer: Fiona Hill