Stem cells have great potential to help treat a range of diseases, injuries and conditions. Stem cells are those cells that can self-renew and differentiate, they present current and future therapies to replace abnormal or missing cells.. The use of blood stem cells has saved the lives of thousands of children with leukaemia and their benefit is evident in their use for tissue grafts to treat diseases or injury to bone, skin and the surface of the eye. Several complexities need to be addressed before widespread application is possible, but of concern are the clinics and companies that are offering stem cell treatments without having their proposed therapies tested through the clinical trial process.

The issues are:  how transplanted cells integrate into complex cell networks of the surrounding tissue to achieve benefit, the risk of the transplanted cells forming tumours, the ability to generate the correct target cell types in the right stage of differentiation and achieving uniformity and consistency of the cells generated.

The list of conditions for which stem cells currently offer proven benefit is small, the International Society for Stem Cell Research has produced a list of warnings and explanations to try and clarify and help understand the potential and the current limitations of stem cell treatments and help identify some of the misinformation that is widely circulated by clinics offering unproven treatments. The report was response to the exaggerated claims by clinics, media and others who do not understand the current limitations of stem cell treatments and science and seek to capitalise by selling treatments to chronically ill or seriously injured patients.

The most extensively used stem cell treatment is blood stem cell transplantation to treat blood and immune system disorders or rebuild the blood system after treatments for cancer. Some bone, skin or corneal injuries and diseases can be treated by grafting or implanting tissues and the healing process relies on stem cells within the implanted tissue. These procedures are widely accepted as safe and effective by the medical community. All other applications of stem cells are yet to be proven in clinical trials and should be considered experimental.

1. Beware of stem cell treatments offered without regulatory approval or outside a registered and legitimate clinical trial

2. Beware of the significant financial costs involved and the time away from family and friends that many treatments requires.There are risks associated with most of the stem cell treatments for sale throughout the world, complications may create new health problems and/or make your condition more difficult to manage. Undertaking an unproven or experimental treatment may make you ineligible for future clinical trials. Out of pocket expenses can be enormous, accommodation charges and fees are often added and in most cases insurance companies and governments health programs do not cover the cost of treatments.

3. Beware of clinics offering treatments with stem cells originating from a part of your body unrelated to your disease or condition. Different stem cells serve different purposes in the body, without manipulation in the laboratory, tissue-specific stem cells can only generate the other cell types found in the tissues where they originate. It is unlikely that a single cell type can be used to treat a multitude of unrelated diseases involving different tissues or organs.

4. Beware of claims that stem cells know where to go and what to do to treat a specific condition. The same stem cell treatment is unlikely to work for different diseases of conditions. Embryonic stem cells have the potential to form all the different cell types in the body, however are not currently being used directly as treatments, as they require careful instruction to become specific cells required and if not properly directed can overgrow and cause tumours when injected into a patient.

5. Beware of clinics minimizing the risks associated with the treatments, such as contamination of cells with viruses or bacteria when the cells are reintroduced, manipulation of cells changing their normal function,(including control of cell growth )

6. Beware of clinics using patient testimonials and persuasive language in written and social media such as Facebook to market their treatments instead of science-based evidence.

7. Beware of expensive treatments that have not passed successfully through clinical trials. Responsible clinical trials have oversights by independent medical ethics committees, the cost of the new treatment and monitoring is not covered by the participant, include listing in a recognised clinical trial registry and build upon their own preclinical data to indicate likely effect and safety.

8. Beware of clinics bypassing the accepted process by which science becomes medicine. Scientists carefully review and replicate their work and invite peers to do the same, a process designed to minimise patient harm and maximize the likelihood of benefit.

Before embarking on any treatment it is important to discuss all your options with your doctor and remember that a testimonial form a patient is not scientific proof that it will work for another person.

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