Various complications and even deaths (like in the case of those Filipino politicians recently) have been reported following stem cell therapy. We are revisiting this issue to put in proper perspective the facts about this widely advertised form of therapy, which has been misrepresented and abused by some enterprising people.
What are stem cells?
The building block, the foundation cell, for every cell, tissue and organ in the body is the stem cell. Stem cells are undifferentiated, with no “specific assigned task as yet.” This has been likened to a blank computer microchip that could be “programmed to perform any number of special tasks.” Subjected to proper conditions, stem cells will develop into specialized tissues and organs (heart, liver, kidneys, etc). Also, stem cells are “self-sustaining and can replicate themselves for long periods of time.”
What is the controversy about?
Scientists, working on mouse models, have discovered that stem cell therapy could SOMEDAY possibly help cure many common diseases that afflict man today. Some of these include stroke, spinal cord injury, heart diseases, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, osteoarthritis, retinal degeneration and blindness, rheumatoid arthritis, liver and kidney diseases, burns, type 1 diabetes, and muscular dystrophies. While the goal of the stem cell research is unquestionably laudable, and its potential benefit to mankind tremendous, the controversy centers on its efficacy and safety today, ethical, moral, religious, legal and social ramifications.
Basically, the grave concerns are (1) The hype and claims are too premature and most untrue; (2) where the stems cells will be harvested from (adult, fetus or embryo), and (3) the possible misuse and abuse of this new technology. And I could not agree more.
As I have stated in my talk before the Rotary Club of Cebu last February, at CITE in Talamban, Cebu City, this evolving science merits more randomized, double-blind and voluminous clinical studies in various medical centers around the world before it becomes a standard in medical care. It also requires a deep soul-searching introspection, and a serious, intense, and thoughtful deliberation to arrive at a morally, ethically, and medically sound stem cell treatment protocol that will also ensure the protection of the unborn, besides healing the sick, and at the same time preserve the dignity of humankind it seeks to serve.
What is its practical benefit to man?
With its unique characteristics, stem cells can provide the cells to replace damaged or diseased tissues with new living cells that will regenerate into healthy, young, normally functioning tissues, in the treatment of condition like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, etc. as listed above, where specific parts of the organs have been damaged and rendered “non-functioning” leading to the development of the disease.
Organ donation is available today but the organ supply is very limited, and the procedure is expensive, arduous, and usually complicated by rejections of the transplanted organ(s). This is where stem cell therapy has a great advantage in, according to researchers. However, the last word is not in yet. Anyone or any clinic who claims otherwise is bordering on fraud.
Where are stem cells harvested from?
We all came from a single cell, medically termed zygote, which is the product of fertilization. The zygote divides into two cells, and each of those two divides into another two cells, and so on. After about five days of conception, about 150 of those cells form a hollow ball called blastocyst, which measures smaller than a grain of sand, and contains two types of cells: trophoblast and inner cell mass. The inner cell mass is made up of embryonic stem cells, which can form all cell types, differentiating into specific tissues and organs later in the development of the fetus. Stem cells could also be found in adult body, like bone marrow stem cells from the bone marrow. Identification of adult stem cell in all vital organs has not been completed as yet. Researchers are now finding ways to induce stem cells already present in the body to grow and produce the right cell types to replace damaged ones. Some specific sources also found to have stem cells are the umbilical cord, amniotic fluid, and baby teeth.
Is adult stem cells therapy now in use?
Yes, adult stem cell replacement (like bone marrow transplantation with a matched donor), has been a well-proven effective treatment and cure for some blood cancers (leukemia, lymphoma) and other blood disorders. It has also been shown in animal laboratories that cells from the bone marrow can give rise to similar specialized cells found in many other tissues like blood, kidney, pancreas, liver, muscles and brain. These are still experimental.
Someday, we will be able to isolate our own bone marrow cells, pre-treat them, and reintroduce them back into our system to renew or repair cells in various diseased organs in our body. That day will soon come, but it is not here yet. More amazing than that is the prospect for stem cells to “grow” new organs, like heart, liver, kidney, etc., and solve the current problem of shortfall of organ donors, and save millions and millions of lives around the world.
But society as a whole, as early as this infant stage of this scientific evolution, has the moral responsibility and obligation to safeguard this new technology, and protect itself and the helpless, from potential criminal exploitation of stem cell therapy for financial gains or for other heinous or depraved motives. As a matter of fact, the scam has started, and ignorant, uninformed or misinformed people are falling victims.
What is fraudulent in stem cell “therapy”?
While stem cell therapy shows promise, the claims that it is effective for “rejuvenation,” making the old become or feel younger, as some popular politicians and personalities have claimed, or that it could cure a host of diseases, including cancer, are false. The scam is even more devastating when it victimizes sick and desperate patients, especially children, and families who are lied to and bilked of their hard-earned money.
The following is a script of “Stem Cell Fraud” which aired on 60 Minutes on CBS on Jan. 8, 2012, and was rebroadcast on Aug. 26, 2012. Scott Pelley is the correspondent. Oriana Zill and Michael Rey, producers.
“(CBS News) There’s no greater desperation than to be told that you, or your child, has a disease for which there is no hope. Many people with incurable illness look forward to the promise of stem cells. Stem cells have the potential to turn into any kind of cell and, in theory, they could repair damaged cells, though, scientists tell us that we are years away from realizing that dream.
There is no stem cell miracle today, so con men have moved in to offer the hope that science cannot. Just look online and you will find hundreds of credible looking websites offering stem cell cures in overseas clinics.
Two years ago we began investigating stem cell charlatans. We worked with patients suffering from incurable diseases, and we discovered con men, posing as doctors, conducting dangerous medical experiments.
Our report started a federal investigation and since that story, we have been digging into the rapidly growing trade in fake stem cell cures. As we reported last January, we’ve found something even more alarming: illegal stem cell transplants that are dangerous and delivered to your doorstep. They are scams that often bilk the desperate out of their last dollar of savings and their last ounce of hope.”
While stem cell therapy holds great promise for other ailments, bone marrow transplantation for blood cancers (leukemia, lymphoma, etc) are already s standard of treatment today. For all other diseases and for the so-called “rejuvenation” they are still under investigation.
Don’t be a victim of this vicious scam. Don’t let these “vendors of modern snake oil” rob you blind as they laugh about our stupidity all the way to their bank. Save your money and enjoy it with your loved ones instead and/or donate them to charity.
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