This post is focused on the important facts you need to know about stem cells as drugs.
Many of the folks out there who want to earn a living to scamming vulnerable patients with so-called “stem cell treatments” have been upset that the U.S. FDA continues to view stem cell-based therapies and indeed cell therapies more generally as “drugs”.
By viewing stem cells as technically drugs, the FDA has the authority and responsibility to regulate stem cell-based treatments for safety and efficacy. The stem cell scammers don’t like that of course because they want to operate under their own rules where safety and efficacy are not important.
For now, however, stem cells are drugs. That is reality.
However, stem cells are very different from all other drugs in ways that are important for you to understand.
I recall a segment from the Canadian news show 16×9 where a doctor who lost his license in the U.S. was now offering stem cell treatments in Mexico. Unlike most folks offering such treatments, this guy did at least warn the patient (as captured on hidden camera) that stem cells have risks….however he compared stem cells to aspirin, which is a bit deceiving.
It is true that aspirin is a drug and stem cells are a drug, meaning that both can have benefits and side effects (a comparison I myself discussed here in my guide to patients). Indeed, even aspirin has potent dangers and a recent study showed that all those people out there in the world taking a daily aspirin to try to prevent heart attacks may in fact be doing themselves more harm than good (see a discussion of that study here).
But stem cells are fundamentally different from any other drug and let me explain how. This is critically important if you or a family member are thinking about stem cells as a treatment!
Let’s start with aspirin as our representative traditional, chemical drug. When you take an aspirin, your digestive system takes it up, the concentration in your body goes up for a certain number of hours, and then the concentration starts going down. Your body metabolizes drugs and excretes them. At some point within a few days, that aspirin is essentially 100% gone from your body and never comes back unless you take another pill.
OK, let’s say you now get an injection of stem cells. What happens next is totally different than for a traditional “pill” drug. Unlike a chemical pill, the stem cells are alive! They are either injected into your bloodstream or a tissue. After injection, a lot of the stem cells die from shock or from being attacked by your body’s immune system, depending on the source of the stem cells. However, in many cases, a lot of stem cells survive. So while their “concentration” goes down (to continue the discussion from a drug perspective), there is a good chance that they never completely go away. This is a key difference from a chemical drug.
Not only may some of the stem cells survive and live in your body forever after a transplant, but some of them may proliferate and increase in number. Thus, their “concentration” may not only vary over time but may start increasing. Again, this is a key difference compared to a chemical pill drug.
The stem cells may also move around your body. So for example, stem cells injected into your neck or back may end up in your brain or kidney, etc. It is also worth noting that most likely no matter where the stem cells are injected, some will end up in your blood stream allowing them to ride around in your body and take root anywhere they please.
Stem cells can also cause cancer once transplanted. Stem cells are cousins of cancer cells in most cases….while the cancer cells are the black sheep of that family, stem cells can also turn to the dark side and give you cancer under certain circumstances.
The bottom line is that unlike all traditional chemical pill drugs, once you are injected with a stem cell treatment, you will in many cases have that “drug” forever and be unable to control how it behaves in your body.
The same holds true for your child.
If you are contemplating getting a stem cell treatment for your child, keep in mind that the stem cells injected into your kid will most likely stay with them forever as in the rest of their lives and those stem cells can later on do bad things that nobody can stop.
Think about this carefully.
You take an aspirin, it soon goes away. But once you get a stem cell treatment, your body (or your child’s) cannot necessarily get rid of those stem cells ever! In some cases your body will get rid of the stem cells, but in other cases it won’t and there’s no way to know in advance which will happen. Thus, taking a stem cell “drug” has unique risks you have to face realistically.