July 4, 2020

The Niche

Knoepfler lab stem cell blog

Patient gets cancer growing on spine from dubious stem cell treatment

A brief report in the NEJM today highlights the risks facing patients who get stem cell treatment from dubious clinics as one such patient recently developed a large spinal tumor.

Dr. Aaron L. Berkowitz and colleagues describe how this patient who received a mixture of several stem cell types from an overseas clinic was later diagnosed with a very unusual neoplastic growth on his spine.

stem cell tourism tumor
NEJM Figure 1a/b, showing massive spinal tumor (long, brighter region)

The data point to the tumor arising from the stem cell treatment as it was genetically distinct from the patient.

Oddly the cancer defied classification as a particular tumor type. This may in part be due to the fact that he was given a mix of embryonic, fetal neural, and mesenchymal stem cells. It’s unclear which cell type(s) might have led to the tumor. Notably he apparently didn’t get any immunosuppression, which raises the question of his own immune response to the transplants.

This patient received at least three transplants at different locations across the globe outside the U.S. While risks of stem cell offerings are higher in certain countries, there are many stem cell clinics here in the U.S. that sell stem cells without FDA approval and with little if any data to back them up.

The NY Times just published an article on this case and identified the patient as Jim Gass as well as providing more details including the start of the chain of events:

“I began doing research on the internet,” Mr. Gass said. He was particularly struck by the tale of the former football star and professional golfer John Brodie who had a stroke, received stem cell therapy in Russia and returned to playing golf again.

So Mr. Gass contacted a company, Stemedica, that had been involved with the clinic, and learned about a program in Kazakhstan. When Mr. Gass balked at going there, the Russian clinic referred him to a clinic in Mexico. That was the start of his odyssey.”

The impact of sports celebrities getting unapproved stem cell treatments and the press about such situations can be far and wide on the public.

The NY Times article actually starts off much later in Mr. Gass’ stem cell treatment saga in a way that is very disturbing and powerful, “The surgeon gasped when he opened up his patient and saw what was in his spine. It was a huge mass, filling the entire part of the man’s lower spinal column.”

The authors of today’s NEJM piece concluded: “Such experimental treatments must be studied in a safe, regulated environment.”

This is a very sad, sobering situation.

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