Giving Stem Cells A Bad Name

Rogue stem cell treatments in recent news are casting a bad light on the whole field, writes David Tan.

AsianScientist (Dec. 28, 2012) – Rogue stem cell treatments are in the spotlight again with news last week that the South Korean Ministry of Health and Welfare is considering legal action against a Korean biotech company for carrying out ‘stem cell treatments’ in Japan and China.

A report in the Mainichi Shimbun revealed that the Hakata branch of Shinjuku Clinic, a dermatology clinic in Fukuoka, Japan, has been injecting manufactured stem cells into approximately 500 South Korean patients a month. The stem cells had been allegedly cultured and stored by RNL Bio, who also referred patients to the Japanese clinic.

Such treatments are considered to still be in developmental stages and are banned under South Korea’s Pharmaceutical Affairs Law. There are however no such legal restrictions in Japan.

No patients have yet been reported to suffer from complications, unlike a Californian woman whose face was injected with fat stem cells derived from her own abdominal fat.

According to a report by Scientific American a fortnight ago, the woman’s Beverly Hills cosmetic surgeons also injected her face with dermal filler, a treatment to reduce the appearance of wrinkles that is generally regarded as safe. What the doctors failed to anticipate was that the principal component of the filler, calcium hydroxylapatite, would interact with her fat stem cells, turning them into bone.

That’s right, the poor lady had small chunks of bone growing in her eyelid and around her eye. The bones would grind against each other every time she opened and closed her eyes, producing “a sharp sound, like a tiny castanet snapping shut.”

Fortunately, the bones were eventually removed in a six and a half hour operation and the woman appears to have fully recovered. However, some fat stem cells are probably lingering in her face with the potential to turn into bone or cartilage at any point later in her life.

Some women suffer considerably worse effects than having bone growing in unwanted places. Take the four hapless women from Hong Kong for example, who in October were hospitalized with septic shock after receiving ‘skin revitalization therapy’ at a DR Medical Beauty Group salon.

The treatment involved taking blood from the patient, concentrating and processing it before intravascular infusion back into the patient. Known as ‘DC-CIK’ treatment, the procedure is a risky one usually administered to patients with metastatic cancer with few remaining options. A week later, one of the four women died from a blood infection.

In Singapore, unproven ‘stem cell treatments’ are not accepted by the medical profession and any such therapy may only be performed under a clinical trial approved by an ethics committee. In 2009, the Singapore Medical Council censured and fined renowned plastic surgeon Dr. Martin Huang for injecting patients with sheep fetal cells in ‘anti-aging’ treatments.

Expensive and dangerous

Some forms of stem cell therapy have been tested and proven to work in the clinic, the most prominent of which is the use of blood stem cells from bone marrow to treat cancers such as leukemia. Bone marrow transplants have been safely applied for more than 20 years.

Most other stem cell therapies, however, are still in early stages of development with extensive safety tests yet to be conducted. Scientists are only just beginning to get a grasp on the multiple factors that control how stem cells behave and interact with their surroundings within the body.

Nevertheless, private companies and clinics have been keen to capitalize on the current media attention on stem cells to offer cures for all sorts of diseases and even for beauty treatments. And these procedures don’t come cheap; many have price tags of US$5,000 and above.

Indeed, Professor Shinya Yamanaka, one of two scientists awarded the 2012 Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine for his research into induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs), warned in an interview with Reuters after his Nobel win, “Patients should understand that if there are no preclinical data in the efficiency and safety of the procedure that he or she is undergoing… it could be very dangerous.”

Explaining how rogue stem cell treatments could be dangerous, Dr. Roberta Pang, Assistant Professor at the Department of Surgery of the Hong Kong University says:

“Unfavorable incidents suggest that in stem cell treatments, there is always unanticipated interaction between stem cells and the microenvironment. At present, stem cell therapy technology is still in its infancy and we are far from a state where scientists can completely control or regulate stem cell differentiation into specific cell types.”

And for those who buy into outlandish claims without discernment, Greg Pollowitz, writing in the National Review Online, has little sympathy. “I’m pretty much against all plastic surgery, except for maybe the nose job. All other procedures I find silly, at best. I put ‘inject stem cells into your face’ in a different category altogether: the ‘you get what you deserve’ category.”

Unproven therapies damage the reputation of stem cell research and with every horror story in the media, the public becomes more skeptical. Sadly, this could hinder the progress of work by scientists and clinicians to bring reliable treatments to the clinic.

Perhaps a good New Year resolution for those interested in trying out a ‘stem cell treatment’ could be to assess critically every claim before parting with their hard-earned money. You would be saving yourself a bundle as well as depriving the quacks of a gullible market.


Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine. Photo: GE Healthcare/Flickr/CC.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.

David Tan is a post-doctoral researcher at the A*STAR Institute of Medical Biology, Singapore. David received a PhD in stem cell biology from the University of Cambridge, UK.

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