What to consider before undergoing stem cell treatment

May 21, 2019 in Personalized Healthcare  •  By Miles Varn, MD
stem cell

It can be difficult to tease out the evidence-based science in the claims of successful adult stem cell-based treatments for health problems from joint pain to Parkinson’s disease, macular degeneration, and spinal cord injury. Even a number of well-respected medical centers now offer patients regenerative medicine treatments that use the patient’s own fat or bone marrow cells or extracts created from platelets in their blood. But there’s not yet strong clinical evidence for the effectiveness and safety of these treatments and none have been approved by the FDA, so it’s wise to learn more before undergoing any stem cell-based treatments.

Currently, the only FDA-approved treatments that transplant adult stem cells from bone marrow or blood are those that treat blood cancers and disorders of the blood and immune system. There are also some treatments that use these stem cells in clinical trials.

Although treatments like bone marrow aspiration and concentration injections for joint pain are being offered by some physicians in the U.S., there are no double-blind clinical trials, the gold standard for medical research, that show that these treatments are effective and safe. In fact, a recent study that compared the pain relief offered by bone marrow injections and saltwater injections for knee pain both delivered the same level of pain relief and the bone marrow injections did not promote a regenerative benefit in the knee cartilage.

Should you bank your stem cells?

Does it make sense to bank your stem cells while you’re younger and healthier so that you can benefit from treatments that may be developed in the coming years? There are several companies that currently offer adult stem cell banking and storage. Some collect stem cells from fat, some perform a blood draw then extract and culture the cells, and some collect these cells from bone marrow. The cells are then cryogenically frozen and banked until you need them.

There are potential health risks, including infection and the risks that come with sedation if you opt for the fat or bone marrow approach. Researchers do not have evidence that shows that cells banked now will not degrade over time. In addition, if you develop a disease later in life, such MS or leukemia, it is possible that the banked cells were in the early stages of developing that disease and won’t be useful to treat it.

Ask these questions

Before undergoing stem cell therapy, ask your physician these questions:

  • What is the scientific evidence that this treatment could work for my disease or condition and where has this evidence been published?
  • Is this treatment part of a formal clinical trial?
  • What other treatment options should I consider and what’s the clinical evidence that supports these treatments?
  • What are the potential benefits, risks, and side effects of the treatment?
  • How many people have you treated with this therapy and what were the results of treatment?
  • What is the source of the stem cells used in the treatment, how are they identified, isolated, and grown, and how is the treatment performed?



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