by RICHARD KNOX
Dr. George Q. Daley sits at his keyboard and types "stem cell treatments." In less than a second he gets 13.4 million Google hits.
"Here's a website where they claim over 1,500 patients treated," says Daley, one of the world's foremost stem cell researchers. "That doesn't mean they've been treated successfully. It's 'buyer beware!'"
But consumers have a hard time sorting out all the stem cell claims out there. Websites often look professional and convincing. Typically they feature distinguished-looking white-coated doctors posed in front of bookcases, technicians holding up flasks with mysterious colored liquids, and happy, healthy-looking clients cavorting on beaches.
Often these clinics are based in the Caribbean, the Ukraine, China, South America. Sometimes it's impossible to tell just where they are; to contact them, you fill out an online form and they get back to you. The US-based websites typically send their clients offshore for treatment not approved by the US Food and Drug Administration.
These days stem cell clinics offer cures for practically everything that ails humans – spinal cord injury, heart disease, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson's. "Everything from A to Z," Daley says.
Unfortunately, Daley says, stem cell therapy is effective for only a few blood disorders, such as leukemias and thalassemia.
"We do about 80 of these a year, and about half the time we can cure the patient," Daley says. "The problem is, if you have diabetes or Lou Gehrig's disease or Parkinson's, stem cell treatments are not the answer today. We hope they will be in the future. But they aren't today."
There are a growing number of legitimate human experiments with stem cells for disorders such as heart failure, spinal cord injury and neurological disease, both in the United States and abroad. Experts say these clinical trials should be labeled as experiments. And prospective volunteers should look for telltale safeguards, such as oversight by ethics boards and approval by governmental regulatory authorities.
Premature claims of stem-cell therapy success is driven by a certain magical aura surrounding stem cells. Under certain laboratory conditions these cells can turn into almost any type of tissue. They promise regeneration. To desperate patients with incurable disorders, that notion is irresistible.
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