Clinics can’t retract stem cell treatments gone bad

Stem cell facelift comicYou can stop taking a pill or an injection treatment, but you can’t stop or retract stem cell treatments if there’s a bad side effect.

Unlike other kinds of medicines, once stem cells have been transplanted into patients, if something goes wrong you cannot stop the ‘treatment’. There’s no retraction possible because transplanted stem cells spread in the body and potentially integrate.

One of the striking things in the commercial stem cell arena in 2016 was the emergence of patient lawsuits against stem cell clinics including two proposed class action suits. These patients, and I count potentially now more than a dozen, allege a variety of harms ranging from tumors to blindness. The reason I mention this is that there appears to be huge potential for harm to patients from unapproved stem cell therapies. I know a lot of patients who would wish they could undo what the stem cell clinic did. It’s just not possible.Stem cell cartoon

Even in an appropriately regulated stem cell trial context, there’s no easy way to undo stem cell transplants. There has been talk for years about suicide genes to be inserted into stem cells to provide “a net” should something go awry with stem cell treatments, but it’s not clear how well these would work and stem cell clinics aren’t interested in that anyway.

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Comic on stem cell facelifts

Stem cell facelift comicHundreds or even thousands of patients are getting stem cell procedures including right here in the U.S. Many key issues remain unresolved, but clinics and doctors are giving these treatments anyway to make money. Critical issues include lack of proper informed consent, lack of strong data on risks and benefits, huge costs, and so forth.

One of the most common procedures now is the use of stem cells for the so-called “facelift” cosmetic procedures. We heard in the last World Stem Cell Summit from Dr. Allan Wu how one patient grew bone in her eye after one such procedure.

Above is my cartoon that hopefully is worth a thousand words about the dangers of these procedures.

I’ll be a guest live on HuffPostLive Today at 4pm talking about stem cell cosmetics & treatments more generally

This should be an interesting discussion with me, a cosmetic surgeon (Dr. Nathan M. Newman; @stemcelllift) who does stem cell facelifts, a patient who received one (Eva Moralez), and Beauty Editor Katie Becker of W magazine.

We start the discussion around 4pm.

Here’s the link: 



Eight simple reasons not to get an unlicensed stem cell treatment: #4, undesired tissue growth (e.g. bone in your eye)

So far in my series of eight simple reasons not to get an unlicensed stem cell treatment I’ve covered three compelling reasons: potential loss of insurance coverage for negative outcomes that could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, failure of patient follow up by the doctors and clinics, and exclusion from future clinical trial participation.

Today in my fourth segment I’m covering something that while very simple, seems to fly under the radar of most patients getting unlicensed stem cell treatments: undesired tissue growth.

So what are stem cells again? They are multipotent cells that can also self-renew. What this means is that the stem cells can make multiple other types of stem cells or more of themselves. Focusing on the former quality, even adult stem cells such as the ever-touted adipose-derived MSCs can express multiple personalities. They can form more of themselves, but also they can make fat, bone, cartilage, blood vessels, and other cell types.

That’s good right?

Well, yes and no.

It’s good if you want to make a variety of cell types, but it is bad in the sense that MSCs are being used by unlicensed clinics in very “blunt” ways. An example of this is the “stem cell face lift” in which fat MSCs are injected into the face. If they just make a bit of subcutaneous fat then in theory they could “smooth out” wrinkles, but what if these MSCs decide for whatever reason they  will become an undesired tissue type in your face?

For example, what if in your cheek skin a piece of cartilage forms and attaches to the underlying cheek bone?

What if the MSCs sprout a mass of blood vessels or bone in your face?

Dr. Allan Wu presented just such a case at this year’s World Stem Cell Summit, discussing the case of a woman who had received a stem cell facelift conducted by another physician. After treatment the woman fairly quickly developed a serious, but puzzling eye problem. Dr. Wu investigated and determined that injected MSCs for the face-lift had grown bone in the skin next to her eye, bone that grew onto existing tissue and could blinded this woman in that eye.

This is serious.

Take home message: You can’t just assume that adipose-derived MSCs will do only one thing especially in the context of treatment administered by an unlicensed clinic. Other stem cells can also produce non-desired tissue growth. The power of stem cells in their mutlipotency (ability to form multiple cell types) also is something to be taken very seriously as a potential source of devastating negative outcomes from unlicensed therapies.