New Breakthroughs in Stem Cell Research, New Warnings of Stem Cell Schemes

A recent study used stem cells from bipolar disorder patients to learn more about the mental illness. A clinical trial is currently being conducted to study the use of same-patient stem cells to treat coronary heart disease (CHD). At the same time, physicians and providers are advertising the effective use of stem cells in a variety of therapeutic treatments. However, some experts warn that these treatments, offered both in and outside the U.S., have created an industry of “stem cell tourism,” which at the very least has the potential to take advantage of patients. Yet, since many of those procedures are not required to be clinically tested because they only minimally manipulate a patient’s own cells or take place in unregulated jurisdictions, the real consequences of these treatments are unknown.

New Study on Bipolar Disorder and Stem Cells

New findings reported in the journal Translational Psychiatry have shown that using a patient’s own stem cells could be a new technique for studying bipolar disorder. Using stem cells harvested from individuals suffering from bipolar disorder, researchers grew these cells and transformed them into brain cells, which were then studied in comparison to the cells of non-bipolar patients to understand the disease. More specifically, the researchers from the University of Michigan extracted inducted pluripotent stem cells (IPS cells), manipulated them into cells similar to embryonic cells, and regrew them as brain cells. According to the study’s authors, this method of using a patient’s own cells may be an extremely valuable tool in studying the mental illness, which is typically difficult to isolate and examine. In short, the authors said the study represented “a prospect of identifying novel disease mechanisms.”

Clinical Trials on Repairing CHD with Stem Cells

While the bipolar disorder research simply involved extracting a patient’s own cells and manipulating those cells to more comprehensively examine the functions of the disease, other recent clinical trials have utilized the reinjection of a patient’s own cells in forming an actual method of treatment for a condition. In particular, according to a local report, Temple University School of Medicine is conducting a clinical trial that investigates the use of stem cells to treat heart disease. This process is carried out through the mobilization of the stem cells in the body of coronary heart disease patients through injections of a certain drug over a five day period. On the fifth day, the cells are isolated from the bloodstream and then injected back into the heart muscle. In the local report, the study’s authors claimed that thus far blood vessel regrowth using this method has only been achieved in animals. In terms of humans, the method has only been proven to improve symptoms.

Stem Cell Tourism

Alta Charo, a law and bioethics professor at University of Wisconsin-Madison, recently warned patients who view advertisements which assert that the manipulation of a patient’s own stem cells can treat certain diseases and conditions, to take these assertions with a grain of salt. Professor Charo is currently studying the field of “stem cell tourism,” which refers to the travel of individuals abroad and in the U.S. who are in the market for stem cell therapies that are offered to treat a variety of conditions. According to Professor Charo, although there are some promising clinical trials involving the use of stem cells—perhaps such as those mentioned previously—in Charo’s opinion most of “the treatments being advertised… are dubious, mostly ineffective, and sometimes positively harmful.” Charo also found that many of these treatments in the U.S. have escaped regulation since those processes only remove stem cells from the body, minimally manipulate them, and then reinsert these same cells into the patient. Therefore, the administration of stem cells is often classified as the practice of medicine rather than the administration of a drug subject to FDA approval. Further, Charo warns that outside the U.S., completely unregulated therapeutic stem cell treatments sectors in China, Mexico, and Russia are growing due to stem cell tourism.