When I first came to China, I never imagined I would ever get so close to a controversial area of medicine, such as stem cell therapy. However, in the past month I have stumbled across a local stem cell program offering treatment for autism spectrum disorders, Alzheimers, diabetes, Parkinsons, Multiple Sclerosis, Myasthenia Gravis and many more diseases. As a scientist I was always taught to be highly sceptical of unproven technologies and so my first thought was that this program was nothing more than a scam. But then I began to ask myself : Why are people from all over the world also flocking to China to receive this treatment if it has no efficacy?
My curiosity led me to find out more information. In May 2009, the Chinese Ministry of health deemed stem cell therapy a category 3 medical procedure, defined as ”high risk” and requiring further approval from a technical audit board before clinical use. Despite this, the Chinese stem cell industry has continued to grow and it has been estimated that there are now at least 100 stem cell companies operating, according to Doug Sipp, Stem cell ethics professor at the RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology in Kobe, Japan.
I spoke with Zhou Jingli, the chief Neurologist at Beijing Puhua International Clinic, who claims that most patients show marked improvements just a few weeks after treatment. She is confident that stem cell therapy is effective and safe, judging from her personal encounters with patients. Despite this, there is a lack of substantial evidence from controlled clinical trials and no one is entirely sure what the future may hold for these stem cell recipients. Currently, It costs in the range of £4000-6000 per injection and usually 4-5 injections are required to have any alleged biological effect. The stem cells are harvested from umbilical cord cells, adipose cells and, in some cases, aborted foetuses.
Last week, I was fortunate enough to speak to a 29 year old Stem cell recipient who was being treated for Myasthenia Gravis. She was a French national and spoke of huge improvements in her physical abilities since her treatment. I still remain highly sceptical about any transient improvements in these conditions as they may have severe consequences; Without further study and controlled clinical trials it is unknown whether this therapy could cause cancer or an autoimmune condition in later years. Whats more, in the US, a company by the name of ‘celltex’ is now providing stem cell treatment to patients who can afford the hefty price tag, despite having no FDA approval. They are able to operate on the grounds that stem cells derived from the patient themselves should not be considered to be a ‘drug’ as it is not a ‘foreign substance’.
As a former graduate of Molecular Genetics and clinical researcher, I understand that there is very little certainty in stem cell biology. We are still trying to untangle vast cell signalling pathways to gain insight on how stem cells interact with their micro-environments. Potentially, stem cells could cure many diseases by regenerating affected organs or damaged cells. However, there is a fine line when manipulating cells that have unlimited proliferative capacity, as stem cells do. This characteristic makes them very much like cancer cells and thus it is paramount that more research is conducted in order to ensure that administered stem cells do not undergo neoplastic proliferation.
Stem cell research is in its infancy and ,in my opinion, this current generation will not benefit from safe stem cell treatment. It will probably take another 30 years before there is enough substantial evidence to deem whether it is clinically viable and has a desirable therapeutic effect. I do have fears that the premature use of stem cell therapy will create a stigma around this technology and stunt its potential to revolutionize medicine. This similar ‘hype’ was seen with the advent of gene therapy, that eventually culminated in the unfortunate death of Jesse Gelsinger in 1999, an 18 year old receiving gene therapy for OTC deficiency. This raised concerns in the medical community and funding for gene therapy research plummeted since the death of Gelsinger. It’s this same hastiness that could potentially prevent a breakthrough in medicine and, if things continue as they are, It may lead to similar outcomes that occurred in 1999.