Stem Cells: Signs of Progress in a Rigged Game

By A. Rahman Ford, Columnist

The Wall Street Journal recently published an article on the use of stem cell therapies for knee problems, including arthritis.  Overall, the perspective of the piece was positive and it has several laudable aspects.  Physicians from large academic institutions, such as Harvard University and Stanford University, were interviewed to provide their opinions on the use of autologous stem cells derived from a patient’s own fat or bone marrow for certain painful orthopedic indications. 

The article rightly acknowledges the high patient demand for these autologous therapies. It also mentions how the U.S. lags behind other countries in offering them and the disturbing fact that this therapy is not covered by medical insurance.  The doctors who were interviewed also discussed how conventional approaches to osteoarthritis in knees – meniscus surgery, microfracture surgery, etc. – often fail to demonstrate long-term benefit.  These doctors, along with many others around the world, recognize that we need new therapies for orthopedic conditions.

Any positive portrayal of the clinical uses of stem cells should be welcomed. The unfortunate truth is that many potential patients are scared off by publications that focus their reporting on the alleged malfeasance of a few bad-actor stem cell clinics.  These same publications often neglect to cover the countless stem cell success stories from clinics in the U.S. and abroad. 

A focus on these promising results may help allay those fears and convince some of those fearful patients that stem cells are, in fact, a viable medical option for their chronic orthopedic pain. 

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Less fear can lead to self-education and increased awareness of the safety and potential of stem cells.  Patients may even try stem cell therapy and become advocates.  In this sense, the WSJ piece is good public relations for stem cell therapies overall.

However, there is an unsettling undertone in the WSJ piece and media coverage in general of stem cells, which places too much emphasis on the opinions of clinicians from certain large institutions.  That diminishes the value of work being done in smaller stem cell clinics, which have been safely and effectively treating patients with orthopedic conditions for years. 

The unintended implication is that Harvard and Stanford physicians’ assessments are more legitimate because of the perceived prestige of their employers, and because they follow the guidelines that the FDA set forth for pursuing such treatments.  Of course, these institutions have millions of dollars in capital that it takes to conduct clinical studies and comply with these guidelines, while smaller clinics often do not.  We must take care to avoid creating or reinforcing illegitimate hierarchies that give some physicians more scientific authority than others, based solely on money, perceived prestige, or the ability to adhere to an unfair set of rules.

The sad truth is that the stem cell game is rigged.  The FDA’s rules regarding the use of autologous stem cell therapies favor those with more financial resources because they can afford expensive clinical trials.  Medical innovation cannot be strictly the domain of wealthy institutions with the finances to play on a tilted field.  The FDA’s “minimal manipulation” and “homologous use” regulatory standards for using stem cells are unduly burdensome and need to be relaxed for autologous stem cell uses. 

Recently, the FDA issued a warning letter to American Cryostem, a company involved in the manufacture of adipose stem cell products derived from a patient’s body fat.  In addition to manufacturing violations, the company was accused of violating the FDA’s “minimal manipulation” and “homologous use” standards. 

Setting the merits of the case aside, it is emblematic of the FDA’s crackdown on clinics that are much smaller than Harvard and Stanford, but which have been relieving patients’ pain with autologous therapies for years.  Their scientific contributions must not be subordinated or dismissed as illegitimate or inconsequential.

Stories of how stem cells are entering mainstream medicine can help us realize the goal of available, affordable stem cell therapy for all Americans.  However, valorization of those institutions with the means to “play within the rules” must not come at the expense of sounding the alarm that the rules themselves are patently unfair.

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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.