Stem cell therapies and their lifesaving results are arguably the best kept medical secret. Stem cells are currently being used in several thousand FDA-approved clinical trials, are treating tens of thousands of patients every year, and cumulatively over 1.5 million people have been treated to date. Yet these numbers, and the lifesaving results from stem cells for dozens of conditions, are unknown to most. Why the information blackout? Perhaps for lack of an adjective.
You see, those heartening numbers are all due to adult stem cells. Long ignored by the media and disparaged even by many in the scientific community, adult stem cells – those not dependent on the destruction of embryos – are the true gold standard for stem cells, especially when it comes to treating patients.
A recent New York Times piece provides a perfect example of the disinformation campaign. Early on, the author discusses the theoretical nature of stem cell treatments and bemoans the fact that “progress is slow,” almost all the research “is still in mice or petri dishes,” and “The very few clinical trials that have begun are still in the earliest phase.”
Whether through ignorance or bias, the sole focus is clearly on embryonic stem cells. Such writing, however, serves to confuse, not illuminate, the facts about stem cells and therapies.
Contrary to the blinkered portrayal of stem cells in the article, there are in fact almost 3,500 ongoing or completed clinical trials using adult stem cells, listed in the NIH/FDA-approved database. Moreover, large numbers of patients have been treated with adult stem cells. In 2012 there were almost 70,000 patients treated around the globe in that year alone, and almost 20,000 patients treated in just the U.S. in 2014. Cumulatively, it’s been documented that as of December 2012, there had already been over one million adult stem cell transplants. This means that now, over 1.5 million patients have had their lives saved and health improved by adult stem cell transplants.
Our focus is indeed on adult stem cells both because they are efficacious for patients, as well as because adult stem cells are derived without the destruction of the stem cell donor, unlike embryonic stem cells and fetal stem cells. Both positions are based on the facts of biology.
The New York Times’ Kolata criticizes various “stem cell clinics” within the U.S., primarily via a paper by two long-time proponents of embryonic stem cells (though this is not disclosed in the article or in the paper), but paints a broad-brush across clinics operating legally and ethically as well as the shady operators. It then juxtaposes the critique of U.S. stem cell clinics with the tragic story of a patient who traveled to three different overseas clinics to receive “stem cell injections” and developed a growing mass of cells on his spine from at least one of the injections. The implied warning is that all U.S. adult stem cell clinics are using similar methods, and, by extension, their patients may experience similar problems. Indeed, many clinics are offshore to avoid FDA rules, but yet again the article drops adjectives and sows confusion. The New England Journal of Medicine source on the case notes that the patient supposedly received proliferating cells including embryonic and fetal stem cells. Certainly all clinics should operate within appropriate ethical and legal boundaries and patients should receive all information, including published background and whether the cells being used are adult, fetal, or embryonic; this is simply a matter of getting full informed consent. But fearmongering and misinformation help neither the patients nor the science.
The stem cell science deniers continue to denigrate adult stem cells, denying their successes or even at times their existence by dropping the necessary, descriptive adjective. But for patients, adult stem cells are the true gold standard for stem cells. The hope of adult stem cells is being realized right now, for thousands of people around the globe. Those stories, those doctors, those patients who have been helped by adult stem cell treatments, deserve to be heard. People like Cindy Schroeder who thought she was given a death sentence when she was diagnosed with multiple myeloma. But Cindy’s doctor was informed on the facts of modern medicine, and was able to inform Cindy and her family that there was hope—from adult stem cells. Over a year after her “stem cell treatment,” Cindy leads a full, active life and her family is closer than ever. Her story, like that of thousands of others, is not theoretical; it’s real adult stem cell science.
Dr. David A. Prentice, VP & Research Director for the Charlotte Lozier Institute as well as Adjunct Professor of Molecular Genetics at the John Paul II Institute, The Catholic University of America, and an Advisory Board Member for the Midwest Stem Cell Therapy Center.