Dr. Denis Claude Roy
Hematologist, Maisonneuve-Rosemont Hospital & CEO, CellCAN
As legitimate stem cell therapy research flourishes, Canadians need to be wary of charlatans with miracle cures.
The promise of stem cell therapies has captured the imagination of doctors, research scientists, and the public alike. Using our bodies’ own stock of undifferentiated cells to repair or grow new tissue presents the possibility of treating all kinds of diseases and conditions that were previously intractable.
Already, lives are being saved by stem cell technologies in Canada and around the world. Unfortunately, there are also those who are taking advantage of our hopes to peddle unproven, and often dangerous, procedures under the stem cell banner. And, when it comes to medical intervention, the mantra “buyer beware” is more critical than ever.
Real medical miracles providing unwitting cover for unproven procedures
There are a few legitimate stem cell therapies out there, and many more in clinical trials. Stem cells are being used to grow self-assembled skin grafts for third-degree burn patients and, in the form of bone marrow transplants, they’ve been used to treat leukemia and other blood conditions for decades. “Bone marrow transplants have saved millions of people for more than 50 years now,” says Dr. Denis Claude Roy, a hematologist at the Maisonneuve-Rosemont Hospital and CEO of CellCAN, a Canadian regenerative medicine and cell therapy network that aims to improve the quality, safety, and feasibility of cell and gene therapy in Canada through optimal manufacturing practices.
“More recently, the use of hematopoietic stem cells for the treatment of multiple sclerosis has demonstrated incredible improvements for patients living with this condition,” Dr. Roy continues. “Many clinical trials are underway for multiple indications and the results so far are tremendous. But before these become widely available to all Canadians, we need to make sure that the treatments aren’t only efficient, but also safe. ”
And therein lies the rub. The incredible potential of stem cell therapies has created a market for unscrupulous clinics to market treatments to the public that have little or no scientific rigour supporting them. These procedures are pricey, but the risk runs well beyond being ripped off. One Canadian, who was tragically paralyzed by a spinal injury, sought treatment from a clinic in Portugal that claimed to be able to regrow his spinal tissue by injecting stem cells harvested from his nasal cavity. Years later, the patient was still paralyzed, and a tumour had developed on his spinal cord that was secreting mucus. There’s a reason why these therapies need to undergo a rigorous scientific process, overseen by official regulatory bodies like Health Canada.
Asking the right questions is key
There are a few critical factors to consider and questions to ask. Is the treatment offered as a “one size fits all” or are you being charged money to get this treatment? Any treatment that you’re being asked to pay for out of pocket should be viewed with skepticism, especially here in Canada. For that matter, if the treatment is being marketed to you at all, mainly with patient testimonials, it’s safe to say it’s questionable.
“The growing fee-for-service offers in private clinics with purported stem cell-based therapies are very worrisome as these treatments haven’t shown efficacy and safety data,” says Dr. Roy. “In Canada, all legitimate therapies are currently offered by qualified physicians specializing in disease management in hospital settings, with follow-up care. Before receiving any treatment outside of a recognized hospital, make sure to talk to your treating physician.”
If you or a loved one have been contacted or advertised to by a stem cell clinic that claims to have a treatment for a specific condition, beware. Refer to the questions provided in this article and, above all, talk to your doctor.