Scientists warn against untested stem cell use by scammers

Treatments which could be dangerous can cost up to €100,000, science festival told

People continue to pay large sums for phoney stem cell medical treatments despite the fact they have no proven value and may be dangerous. Many are bought by vulnerable people with incurable degenerative diseases who will try anything, according to medical experts.

These dodgy treatments do not come cheap, costing anything up to well above €100,000, to Dr Massimo Dominici, president elect of the International Society for Cellular Therapy.

He and other experts working on treatments based on the use of stem cells have issued strong warnings about the risks if patients sign up for these unproven and sometimes dangerous therapies.

Festival of Science
They were addressing a session yesterday at the British Science Association's annual Festival of Science in Newcastle.


The scammers often claim to make use of something known as mesenchymal stem cells.

These look set to deliver valuable treatments in many conditions, including osteoarthritis and certain bone diseases, but these are still a long way off, said Prof Bruno Peault, professor of vascular regeneration at the University of Edinburgh and at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Even so, media reportage about mesenchymal stem cells had been picked up by unscrupulous practitioners who made extravagant claims about treatments they could offer, Dr Dominici of the University of Modena and Reggio Emilia said.

Untested therapies
One company advertises being able to cure more than 100 diseases using transplanted cells.

Despite being against the law, about 100,000 people in the US have used these untested therapies. They cannot legally be given because they have not gone through tests that would ensure both safety and efficacy. Clinics provide them by word of mouth, prey on the gullible and operate under the radar.

Researchers are getting closer to treatments in areas related to bones and joints, but progress is much slower in other areas, such as heart or brain disorders. While mesenchymal stem cells work well with certain tissues such as bone and blood and joints, they don’t when it comes to nerve and brain tissues.

Yet the clinics are using them for brain-related disorders such as Parkinson’s, dementia and motor neuron disease, Dr Dominici said.

The researchers said that while there were more than 300 clinical trials under way using stem cells, none had reached the point where they were proven to be safe and effective.

Dick Ahlstrom

Dick Ahlstrom

Dick Ahlstrom, a contributor to The Irish Times, is the newspaper's former Science Editor.