16 July 2014
A growing number of Australians are reported to be receiving stem cell therapies of dubious value that may also present a risk to their health.
A legal exemption in the Australian Therapeutic Goods Administration's regulations reportedly allows treatment of patients with their own stem cells by doctors without evidence of clinical efficacy.
Using a person’s own stem cells arguably carries the lowest risk, since they are obviously a perfect tissue match, but risks do still remain. This is demonstrated by a recent New Scientist report on a woman who received a transplant of olfactory stem cells from her own nose as an experimental treatment for spinal paralysis. Not only was it ineffective, it also led to a growth on her spine that had to be removed several years later.
This is not to say that stem cells do not show considerable promise as a treatment for a wide range of conditions, but in addition to safety issues there is concern that patients may be paying large sums for treatments of unknown value.
To address some of these worries, Stem Cells Australia, a major multidisciplinary research initiative funded by the Australian Research Council, has released The Australian Stem Cell Handbook, a guide for the public, along with another for health professionals, on stem cell treatments. The International Society for Stem Cell Research also provides information.