July 9, 2020

The Niche

Knoepfler lab stem cell blog

Woman’s death after “no big deal” fat stem cell therapy: coroner investigating

An elderly woman in Australia reportedly died shortly after receiving a fat stem cell transplant.

Sheila Drysdale passed away hours after getting an adipose stem cell treatment a few days before Christmas in 2013. That death is now being investigated by the coroner there.Macquarie Stem Cells

Not only is this death in Sydney distressing in it of itself, but also it raises broader safety concerns across the globe including here in the U.S. because fat stem cell treatments of this kind are so widely administered. Most have not been approved by the various countries’ regulatory agencies including the FDA here in the U.S.

This kind of “liposuction stem-cell therapy” procedure is often marketed by stem cell clinics as safe and effective for a host of conditions.

The AAP article that reported the death provides more details:

“… in July 2013, Mr Drysdale heard an advertisement for Macquarie Stem Cells, whose celebrity patients included the late model Charlotte Dawson and cricket legend Geoff Lawson, and began investigating the possibility that stem-cell therapy could help his wife after reading about encouraging US case studies online.”

This part of the report also highlights how what goes on in the U.S. has global implications for patients and the stem cell field.

Mr. Drysdale, who himself got a stem cell therapy for arthritis, indicated that he recalled the clinic doctor downplaying risks. It is common in the U.S. as well for clinics to indicate that there is little-to-no risk from stem cell treatments, when in fact there are documented potential risks. According to the article:

“He said look, you had it done to you, it’s no big deal,” Mr Drysdale told the inquest on Tuesday of a conversation with the doctor performing the surgery, Ralph Bright.”

Even amongst some academics in the U.S. there has been a growing mantra that adult stem cells such as adipose mesenchymal stem cells (MSC) are by definition always safe, but such a broad assumption should not be made given many factors: (1) the wide range of types of adult stem cells, (2) the often scant stem cell training of practitioners, (3) treatments being given outside the area of physician speciality, (4) the range of laboratory conditions and devices used, and other issues such as differences in patient’s already existing medical conditions and health status.

From a broader view, efforts in the U.S. and elsewhere to weaken stem cell regulatory oversight that covers adult stem cell therapies including fat stem cell treatments could endanger patients both here and around the world as many countries could follow this path. Update: To be clear, given the circumstances I doubt that the actual stem cell product caused the death and it is more likely the procedure itself.

The investigation of the death in Australia, which hopefully will clarify what actually happened and if the experimental stem cell therapy procedure played a role in the outcome, points to just how high the stakes are here. Other deaths and negative outcomes (e.g. here, here, and here) related to stem cell offerings have been reported in recent years as well, further raising concerns more generally.

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