Medical clinics that provide largely unregulated stem cell treatments are popping up all over the U.S. But a new study out Thursday suggests that these clinics aren’t all the same, and some might be more likely to give patients unsafe or useless treatments than others.
Previous studies have broadly tried to gauge what the direct-to-consumer stem cell industry looks like in the U.S. and Canada. These clinics claim that conditions such as lower back pain or sports injuries can be treated through the transplantation of stem cells, the building blocks of our body that mature into various types of cells. By using these cells, the theory goes, you can regenerate parts of the body that might not heal otherwise, or at least speed up the healing process.
The authors behind this new study, all based at Arizona State University (ASU), decided to focus on a smaller slice of stem cell clinics closer to home. They looked at the online marketing of nearly 170 stem cell clinics in six states along the U.S. Southwest—Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, and Utah. Combined, these might represent as much as a third of all clinics in the country.
The findings, published Thursday in Stem Cell Reports, do largely reaffirm the earlier work. For instance, they found that stem cells were most commonly offered for orthopedic conditions, like knee or spine injuries. But they also found that treatments for inflammatory conditions, like arthritis, were much more commonly advertised. That could reflect a unique trend in the Southwest, or suggest that clinics in general are now starting to branch out to these conditions. Other conditions on the menu included pain, cardiac problems, diabetes, and even autism.
It’s a lingering question as to whether stem cells can actually help treat the vast majority of conditions they’re being advertised for. For most, the evidence for their effectiveness or safety in humans is either lacking or completely non-existent.
This study was able to present a more in-depth view into the business practices of these clinics, as well as the relevant medical training of their doctors. One perhaps surprising finding, for instance, is that relatively few stem cell clinics seem to be only stem cell clinics.
“It’s a pretty diverse industry,” co-lead author Emma Frow, a health policy researcher at ASU, told Gizmodo over the phone. “What we found was that, at least in the Southwest, only 25 percent of the clinics are clinics that just offer stem cells. But much more common than that, up to 75 percent of the marketplace, are clinics where stem cells are one among many different types of treatments.”
It’s hard to tell which doctors at these multipurpose clinics are actually treating people with stem cells, so Frow and her team focused on the medical training of doctors at the specialty clinics. And again, they found a lot of variety, some of it not so encouraging.
“It seems like some care providers tend to offer stem cell treatments that are pretty narrowly focused on the types of medical conditions they regularly treat,” she said. “And then there are other types of providers whose expertise wouldn’t necessarily seem to match the range of conditions they offer to treat with stem cells.”
In other words, there are at least some places where doctors are giving stem cell treatments for conditions they have little experience in treating otherwise. This kind of mismatch was more common among clinics that promised to treat a wide range of medical conditions with stem cells, compared to those that specialized in one or two conditions.
Right now, stem cell clinics are in a legal grey area. Only some therapies, like bone marrow transplants for some cancers, are approved by the Food Drug Administration. And the FDA is halfway through the three-year grace period it’s implemented before major regulations on the industry are finalized, including speeding up the approval process for new therapies before they can be sold to the public. That effectively means all stem cell treatments offered at these clinics are experimental and unproven.
Recent incidents of people developing serious complications from their treatments, including blindness and infections from contaminated stem cells, have led to the agency going after and even shutting down the worst offenders that have flouted FDA guidelines.
That said, the authors do acknowledge that patients often visit these clinics as a last resort, when conventional treatments have failed to help them. And the field of stem cell medicine may very well lead to genuine advances and relief for many.
But the researchers said people should at least go to the clinics that are the most likely to be safe. According to study author David Brafman, a bioengineer and stem cell researcher at ASU, there are some questions any prospective patients should ask themselves before trying out a clinic.
“Is the clinic offering to treat numerous conditions. Are their scientific practices well documented? Are they taking any sort of risk? Do you have any legal actions that you can take if you’re harmed? Are they claiming that the procedures don’t have any risks? I mean that’s important. All medical procedures have risk,” Brafman told Gizmodo.
People who want to know more about whether stem cell treatments are right for them, he added, should check out the educational resources provided by the International Society for Stem Cell Research.