Usually when we hear about celebrities getting unproven stem cells, it’s the celebrity themselves or their PR machine hyping it in exchange for something like free treatments or even money from those offering the stem cells for sale, but in the past 2 weeks the buzz over the “Formula One legend” driver Michael Schumacher (see a photo of him during his racing days below) getting a stem cell treatment for brain damage hasn’t seemed to have come from his circle. The source isn’t entirely clear. Even so, this story has generated a remarkable amount of buzz and hype.
Unfortunately, I don’t see Michael Schumacher having any reasonable chance of benefiting in any way from the “stem cells” or the story. What’s going on here? Was he even given stem cells? He had a catastrophic skiing accident in 2013 that caused severe brain damage.
The French paper Le Parisien first reported that Schumacher was getting some kind of stem cell treatment.
UK tabloids then have been reporting on this story like the stem cell “treatment” involved could really help. You see a screenshot below of the types of headlines that popped up on Google News.
The phrases in the headlines are over the top in my view such as “Michael Schumacher could be able to “cry at stories” and “move his thumbs”.
The Daily Star coverage starts like this,
“On Monday, he was taken to the Georges Pompidou Hospital in Paris, where he will be given cutting-edge stem-cell treatment. He is set to be treated at the state-of-the-art facility by Professor Philippe Menasche, a top surgeon specialising in stem-cell breakthroughs. Schumacher has been in a coma since his accident in 2013 when he suffered catastrophic head injuries.”
Who exactly specializes in “stem cell breakthroughs”? I guess we can’t expect much balance from tabloids, right?
What kind of stem cells (if any) might be involved here and how would they be used?
I reached out to Dr. Menasche by email and got this reply:
“Thank you for your mail. Unfortunately, for the time being, it is a very strong willingness of the family not to provide any information and you will understand that although I miss sharing scientific data with colleagues, I currently have to comply with the family’s commitment to confidentiality. For your information, should this leak had not occurred, I had planned to publish an “anonymous” case report describing the whole procedure but, unfortunately, it is, at least currently, no longer possible.”
He felt unable to even mention any technical details of the product or methods used. Medical privacy issues are of course very important.
I tried to learn more about Menasche’s research. He appears to be a surgeon at the University of Paris. I see some recent interesting publications on stem cells from him, but related to the heart, not the brain. That seems somewhat concerning given that Schumacher had brain and not heart damage.
After skimming through some of the tabloid stories, at first my best guess was that Menasche’s team somehow infused MSCs systemically into Schumacher (or possibly directly into his brain) based on the idea that it might reduce chronic brain inflammation to aid his recovery from severe brain damage.
However, it appears that instead maybe the famous F1 driver received something like experimental preps of stem cell exosomes or some unproven secretome kind of product based on this quote further down in the Daily Star article referenced above:
“Le Parisien said the F1 legend had been injected with secretome, called “stem-cell juice” by Professor Menashe, which is more commonly used to repair the heart.”
I’m not sure how a stem cell secretome injection could help brain damage either. One recent high-profile paper did argue for a potential role of stem cell exosomes in the brain in aging, but it was very preliminary.
We need clinical trial data for this kind of thing more broadly. Compassionate use options for individual severe cases may be warranted depending on the context.
So overall I’d grade this media coverage as more hype than hope unfortunately. On the little we know, it seems like very long odds that the race driver could benefit medically either.
My best wishes to Michael Schumacher and his family. It’s understandable for patients and families to be looking for hope, especially in a tragic situation.
I hope the family wasn’t given the wrong idea by the medical/research team about the odds here of any benefit and potential risks so they could make an informed decision.