January 25, 2021

The Niche

Trusted stem cell blog & resources

The dangers of stem cell self-experimentation: cartoon & discussion

A concerning trend in the for-profit stem cell field, but one that does not get enough attention, is self-experimentation by those selling (often unlicensed) stem cell treatments. In other words, the stem cell clinic leaders and docs often not only sell stem cell treatments to patients, but also they give themselves the same treatments, often repeatedly. For some it seems to almost reach the point of addiction.

stem cell self-experimentation

Above is a cartoon on this issue by a new member of the Knoepfler Lab Blog, scientific and medical illustrator, Taylor Seamount. Look for more pieces by this talented scientific artist in the future.

More generally in science, biomedical self-experimenters are sometimes dubbed as brave heroes of a sort. For example, Dr. Barry Marshall experimented on himself by infecting himself with the bacterium Helicobater pylori to test the hypothesis that it causes stomach ulcers. He became somewhat of a scientific folk hero and went on to win the Nobel Prize for his work along with Dr. J. Robin Warren in 2005.

However, there have been many disasters related to self-experimentation. I suspect few of these end up in the public domain so what is known about negative consequences from self-experimentation is probably just the trip of the iceberg of what has actually happened.

Dr. William Stark self-experimented on the relation between diet and scurvy, and in so doing accidentally killed himself.

Dr. Jesse William Lazear experimented on himself  while studying yellow fever resulting in his own death.

So when it comes to stem cells, you might ask, “What’s so bad about stem cell self-experimentation of this kind?”

Beyond the danger to the physicians themselves, a more serious problem in my opinion is that self-experimentation is being used as a way to promote unlicensed stem cell treatments to patients. I have talked to patients who say that when a stem cell doctor says to them, “I get these treatments myself” it can be very persuasive.

Potential patients may think along the lines of “If the doctor or leader of the company himself gets injected with billions of these cells all the time, they must really believe in them and the cells must be safe”.

I believe that stem cell self-experimentation may also change the thinking of those working at clinics such that they themselves become more viscerally passionate about the stem cell therapies in question. It could affect their judgment in ways that are harmful to the corporate culture and their patients. For example, they may fail to do proper informed consent of patients.

Stem cell self-experimentation is something that we in the stem cell field need to keep a careful eye on, especially as the number of unlicensed stem cell clinics rapidly grows.

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