Stem Cell Regulation and a Rule Too Many

By A. Rahman Ford, Columnist

The New England Journal of Medicine recently published an op/ed rather benignly entitled “Rejuvenating Regenerative Medicine Regulation.”  

The authors, R. Alta Claro and Douglas Sipp, argue that the Food and Drug Administration did not go far enough in regulating stem cell therapies in its recently released final guidance, and that further restrictions need to be placed on Americans seeking to use their own cells to heal themselves. Both authors are affiliated with RIKEN, a Japanese research institute that is developing stem cell technology.

Although clothed in the flowing garb of humaneness, medical ethics and protecting the sick and disabled, the authors’ posture reveals itself to be strikingly paternalistic.  Rather than “rejuvenate” regenerative medicine with ideas that would invigorate and fertilize a forward-thinking, democratic regulatory regime, Claro and Sipp instead articulate positions so extreme that they operate as more of a death knell to stem cell innovation.  Indeed, the authors seem to have issued a eulogy for a promising and precocious corpus of medicine that has barely attained its infancy.

In their view, the FDA guidance is “a positive step,” but more needs to be done.  To assist in the effort, they urge institutions at the state level to “crack down” on malfeasant clinics and agitate for state legislatures to pass stricter informed consent laws, as was recently done in California. 

To justify further restrictions on the availability of stem cell therapies, they claim that the “explosion of stem cell marketing in the United States” has led to “predatory” clinics offering “untested stem cell treatments [that have] exposed patients to unjustifiable risks.” 


They further claim that the FDA has fallen short in in its staged approach to enforcing the new rules against clinics deemed to be in violation.  The authors even go so far as to assail the 21st Century Cures Act because it created “a pathway to approval that is at risk of putting cell and tissue products on the market before they have been adequately tested.”

A bare endorsement of the FDA’s “minimal manipulation” and “homologous use” tests would have been troubling enough, and the authors do endorse those tests in their article.  As I wrote in an earlier column, the agency’s guidance is unduly burdensome when it comes to autologous therapies – which involve stem cells that are extracted from a person and administered to the same person to relieve conditions such as chronic pain. 

In Clara and Sipp’s view, those suffering from pain and other chronic illnesses are part of the problem, because it was largely “patient demand” that helped “drive the growth of unproven therapies.”  Such a placing of blame upon chronically ill patients is disappointing. 

Equally disappointing is the authors’ disregard of those same patients’ constitutionally-protected privacy interest in their own bodies and their own cells, an interest which – as with abortion rights – would require a compelling interest on the part of the federal government to justify excessive regulation.  Unfortunately, an uncited reference to “numerous documented reports of medical accidents” involving stem cells does not a compelling interest make.

Texas Should be the Model

However, the authors are correct that states must be more involved in setting stem cell policy.  The problem is that they chose the wrong example.  Rather than emulate the restrictive policies of California, the Texas example should be the model that other states follow.  Texas has passed legislation making autologous stem cell therapies more accessible to its residents and has even buttressed it with “right to try” legislation.  

The Texas effort was spearheaded by tireless patient advocates who were able to communicate to state lawmakers their truly human stories.  Lawmakers heard and felt that pain – some personally because of their own experiences with pain and disability.  The result was stem cell choice, in a state-led regulatory model that can hopefully be a nationwide blueprint, as Washington state was for marijuana legalization.

Stem cell policy-making must not be a strictly elite enterprise.  It must be democratic process, as embodied by the Congress when it overwhelmingly passed the Cures Act and its provisions which help expedite stem cell cures.  The people’s voice must be preponderant, and bolstered by thoughtful, reasonable rules that privilege choice, promote fairness, and protect us from physical and legal injury.

We should not seek rules that only preserve a place for the status quo in a rapidly advancing medical technology landscape that threatens to make a dusty relic out of old ways of thinking.  The orthodox "clinical trial" medical regulatory paradigm favored by the FDA simply does not work for regenerative medicine and stem cell therapies.  So rather than fear-mongering by focusing on a conjured-up phantom of rampant medical malfeasance, we should embrace the future. 

Fear of change is understandable and expected from certain quarters.  But the millions of Americans in chronic and intractable pain are not the ones who are afraid, and are not as docile and ignorant as they may be portrayed.

Although their argument is flawed, the title Charo and Sipp selected is resounding.  Regenerative medicine and stem cell policies must indeed be about rejuvenation, not more regulatory entanglement.

A. Rahman Ford.jpg

A. Rahman Ford, PhD, is a lawyer and research professional. He is a graduate of Rutgers University and the Howard University School of Law, where he served as Editor-in-Chief of the Howard Law Journal. He earned his PhD at the University of Pennsylvania.

Rahman lives with chronic inflammation in his digestive tract and is unable to eat solid food. He has received stem cell treatment in China.  

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represent the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.