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Is Stem Cell Therapy a Snake-Oil Remedy?

Would you receive a medical treatment that is not proven to work? A lot of people already do. It's called alternative medicine, and it is an approximately $34 billion industry in the United States. Irrational hatred of "Big Pharma" and a desire for "natural" healing has driven many people to reject evidence-based medicine in favor of what has become the modern-day equivalent of a snake-oil remedy.

Unfortunately, stem cell therapy is becoming the latest snake-oil fad.

Don't get me wrong. Stem cells have enormous therapeutic potential. Someday, hopefully in the not-too-distant future, stem cells will be used routinely to cure devastating diseases. But that day is not today. Mouse_embryonic_stem_cells.jpg

A company called Celltex, however, is injecting patients with adult stem cells derived from their own bodies. The problem is that the procedure is not known to work, and it might actually be illegal, as Nature reports. What is most stunning, from a scientific point of view, is the attitude that one of the doctors has toward this unproven procedure:

"If you can compare before and after and show improvement, there's no need for a placebo."
Wrong. If a treatment is completely untested, the standard procedure is to conduct a randomized clinical trial using a placebo. If this basic scientific practice is not met, then it is nearly impossible to determine if a patient is actually better or simply feels better due to the placebo effect.

It gets worse. He adds:

"The worst-case scenario is that it won't work."
Wrong again. Stem cells are useful because of their ability to divide for long periods of time, perhaps indefinitely. But it is precisely this quality that makes them potentially dangerous. What other kind of cell grows indefinitely? Cancer. And there has been at least one documented case of a child contracting brain cancer after he was injected with embryonic stem cells. Additionally, a relatively new idea hypothesizes that cancer itself arises from cancer stem cells.

Treating people with stem cells in anything other than a clinical trial setting constitutes three potential bioethical violations: (1) Falsely raising patients' hopes; (2) Downplaying the importance of evidence-based medicine; and (3) Downplaying the risks associated with the procedure.

To me, that sounds a lot like alternative medicine.

Image credit: National Science Foundation/Wikimedia Commons