Frank panel on hidden dangers of stem cell treatments to patients at WSCS2012

This morning here at The World Stem Cell Summit there was a healthy, frank discussion of the risks associated with receiving unlicensed, unproven stem cell therapies.

Dr. Jim Guest presented first and gave a great talk about the risks associated with stem cell treatments. One such risk that was mentioned is inadequate characterization of stem cell preparations, which means that if you receive a transplant of that kind even the doctor injecting you doesn’t know for sure what’s coming through that syringe into your body. Another under-appreciated risk is not from the stem cells themselves, but rather from the procedure itself. He also presented a compelling adult stem cell treatment case in which the cells caused undesired tissue growth in the form of angiogenesis in a kidney, causing the patient to lose that kidney.

The second speaker was Dr. Allan Wu, who is a surgeon who works with adipose stem cells. Dr. Wu gave a great, frank talk about the risks of getting stem cell treatments. He also gave patients advice on what to do in evaluating clinics and doctors. One key question to ask:

“If I have a complication will you be able to directly take care of me?”

I believe most stem cell clinics would unable to honestly answer “yes”.

Another key point of Dr. Wu was that autologous doesn’t mean a stem cell treatment is safe and doesn’t mean that it won’t cause a life-threatening autoimmune reaction.

Other risks include lack of properly functioning autoclaves putting patients at risk of infection including potentially life-threatening sepsis. Centrifuge contamination is also fairly common and poses risks both of infection from pathogens, but also cross-contamination with other patients’ cells.

What about stem cells face lifts? His personal opinion is that it is not ready for prime time. He presented a case of a woman who had previously had such a treatment that resulted in a terrible negative outcome that damaged her eye and threatened her vision. It turns out the woman had an unintended bone growth in her eye from her adult stem cell treatment. Holy crap.

Dr. Wu argued that docs need to do internal policing. I agree, but further oversight by regulatory agencies is also essential.

Overall Dr. Wu gave an extremely compelling talk.

The third speaker was Doug Sipp of RIKEN, who defined himself as a concerned citizen.

Doug told some stories of stem cell clinics that are very dangerous. He argued that the role of regulatory oversight not only protects patients, but also protects science itself. I couldn’t agree more.

He also went through arguments for and against strict regulatory oversight.

Doug also said he had found 400 clinics in the past on the Internet offering stem cell treatments, but that 80 had apparently closed in the interim. I do wonder though how meaningful those apparent “closings” might be because many of those clinics may have morphed into a new identity as a new clinic under a new name.

Jeanne Loring asked the first question of Doug, asking what kind of blowback does he get. Doug said he’s been threatened with litigation multiple times. He’s also been attacked on the Internet by a troll mimicking his website and his name.

A doctor in the audience raised the concern that at the meeting that one-on-one doctor-patient interactions are being devalued.

Another point raised was the failure of most clinics to do appropriate long-term (according to Dr. Wu, a minimum of 10 years) follow-up, a topic I’ve covered here before that is a very serious issue.

An additional point raised by an audience member is cost.