Elisabeth is a 13-time Emmy-winner, a critically acclaimed personal finance author and a 20-year consumer advocate for programs such as Good Morning America and The Dr. Oz Show.
“Stem cell science is extraordinarily promising… We are tremendously optimistic that stem cell therapies will someday be available to treat a wide range of human diseases and conditions.” —The International Society for Stem Cell Research
“Someday.” That’s the word that stuck out to me in the passage above when I came across it during my research. I was preparing to go undercover for The Dr. Oz Show to investigate what for-profit stem cell clinics are telling vulnerable patients. If stem cell treatments were going to be available “someday,” why did I have my choice of 570 stem cell clinics to visit today?
What I learned is that revenue has eclipsed research. Hundreds of for-profit stem cell clinics already exist across the country because desperate patients will pay big money —$5,000 to $20,000 a pop— for stem cell treatments. Surely it’s no coincidence that the patients these clinics target are those with diseases for which there is no known cure. I went undercover with a woman named Patricia, who has one of them: multiple sclerosis.
We went into our appointments armed with a list of warning signs provided by the The International Society for Stem Cell Research. And it was almost as if the doctors we visited were systematically checking off all the red flags on the list. Here are those warning signs —sort of a play-by-play of our visits— along with my commentary on what we experienced.
Be wary of clinics that offer treatments with stem cells that originate from a part of the body that is different from the part being treated.
Both stem cell clinics we visited in person said they would harvest stem cells from Patricia’s fat, isolate them, then reintroduce them into her blood stream to treat her M.S. Stem cells are prized for their science fiction-like ability to transform themselves into other types of tissue and that’s one reason scientists are intrigued by their potential. Problem is, not all stem cells are created equal. Researchers say those found in fat are unlikely to turn into anything other than fat. So how could they help Patricia with her M.S, given that it’s a disease of the brain and spine?
A major warning sign that a clinic may not be credible is when treatments are offered for a wide variety of conditions but rely on a single cell type.
At one clinic, I happened to excuse myself for standing up throughout the visit and explained that I suffer from sciatica (a pinched nerve in the spinal area), so sitting is sometimes painful. The doctor interrupted his discussion of Patricia’s M.S. to say that stem cells from fat could also help my sciatica! Then he enthused about how he was getting fat stem cells injected into his scalp to grow his hair back. He also talked about treating Parkinson’s patients with stem cells from fat.
At the other clinic, I rattled off a random laundry list of medical problems that were not advertised on the doctor’s website —hair loss, migraines, thyroid problems, a sore hip— just to see what the doctor would say. He said fat stem cells would help with every single one of them —and then added several more of his own to the list.
Be wary of clinics that measure or advertise their results primarily through patient testimonials.
We attended a third stem cell clinic’s patient information webinar and the clinic’s website was chock full of patient testimonials. Of course, the clinic only listed their first name and last initial, so we had no way of following up with them to see if they continued to be satisfied with their stem cell treatments.
At one of the clinics we visited in person, the doctor answered nearly every question we asked with a long, colorful anecdote about previous patients —and not just any patients. Every patient he mentioned seemed to be famous in some way: professional athletes, top surgeons, important businessmen… the list goes on and on.
Be wary of claims that stem cells will somehow just know where to go and what to do to treat a specific condition.
Sure enough, the three clinics we heard from undercover all said they would introduce the stem cells into a patient’s bloodstream via an IV and the cells would travel where needed to repair the body. One doctor even said that he had a patient who came to him with one problem, and instead the stem cells fixed a different, more serious problem that she didn’t know about at the time! One of the three doctors I met with also said stem cells have anti-inflammatory properties, but academic scientists say that hasn’t been proven conclusively.
Just because stem cells came from your body doesn’t mean they are safe.
On this point, our undercover results were split. One doctor did a thorough job of describing potential risks, though he said he had never had any of these problems with his own patients. The other doctor said exactly what patient advocates warned about. He told Patricia there was no risk because he was merely introducing her own stem cells back into her body.
This feedback was troubling given that there are distinct and disturbing risks detailed in published studies. One case study described a woman who developed strange bony growths around her eyes after a stem cell treatment. Multiple studies have shown the potential for stem cells to cause tumors. Plus studies and lawsuits show patients have been blinded by ill-advised stem cell treatments. And two Florida patients died of strokes after a doctor injected stem cells into their brains.
Yes, what we heard in our undercover visits was troubling. But worst yet, the premature stem cell treatments of today could undermine trust in the promising stem cell treatments of tomorrow.