Why are ‘Stem Cell Treatments’ so controversial?

by Aug 20, 2018Regenerative Medicine/Stem Cells0 comments

What’s going on?

Upon the writing of this article, in August of 2018, the field of regenerative medicine and so-called ‘stem cell treatments’ is growing at a rapid rate. Every day, there are new clinics popping up offering these treatments, which in essence is not a negative thing. Medicine is evolving, and regenerative medicine offers a real and progressive solution for those who want to identify the core of a medical or aesthetic issue, and manage the root cause using a more natural approach, rather than simply managing the symptoms (generally using pharmacological methods), as can often be the case with traditional medicine. Now, this is not to say that regenerative treatments are replacing existing medicine, but rather that they are complimenting it, and providing a greater selection of adjunctive tools for practitioners to help their patients, which is always the goal.

Having said this, while the growth and popularity of these treatments is positive, there is a growing aura of misdirection and misconception developing in the background. In most cases, these treatments are advertised as ‘stem cell treatments’. Clients are advised that they will be injected with stem cells, derived from blood, adipose tissue (fat) or bone marrow most commonly, and in some cases are told things like ‘ 1.5 million stem cells per injection’ will be introduced to the specific site of treatment. While this may contain elements of truth, it is misleading as a whole, and will soon become entirely illegal in fact.


So, what’s the difference?

To understand the importance of this, let us first examine the terminology ‘stem cell treatment’. A stem cell, in simple terms, is an undifferentiated cell, which has the potential to develop into a wide range of cell types, for example a muscle cell, a nerve cell, a bone cell and so on. Stem cells form a vital part of the growth of all tissue in the body, and are most definitely an integral part of the treatments which we use in regenerative medicine. However, the reason it is not correct to use this terminology when discussing the treatment with a client, advertising a treatment online etc, is because it is just that: a part of the treatment.


Pure stem cell treatment and science involves the isolation and identification of a specific type of stem cell, the extraction and then manipulation of the cell/s in a laboratory environment, generally requiring a complex array of equipment and expertise. A common example of this can be seen with the growth of human or animal tissue in vitro (outside the body), where specific tissues are grown according to the type of cells utilised and the processes performed.



To understand where this differs from regenerative, or what can be called stem-cell-based treatments, we can look at PRP (Platelet Rich Plasma), which is currently one of the most popular and well-known treatments. PRP involves the collection of blood from a patient, and an extraction of the plasma, which contains the active elements of the treatment, and this is then injected into the site of treatment. PRP does indeed contain stem cells, however it is impossible in a normal clinical environment to identify these exact stem cells, and to count them. Of course, you can estimate based on research or experience, but do you want your doctor to tell you something about a treatment he/she is about to perform which sounds definitive (1.5 million stem cells), and find out that this was based purely on estimation, or a quick google search?


What else?

The next reason regenerative medicine is different, sticking with PRP as our example, revolves around all of the other elements contained in the treatment, which are vital for the success of these procedures. Contained in the plasma, alongside the stem cells, is a complex mix of progenitor cells, leukotrienes, cytokines, growth factors and so forth, all of which are important to initiate, activate, accelerate and sustain the development of the stem cell on its way to differentiate into new tissue. A stem cell alone will not produce the required response in the tissue, and this is vital to understand.

While this may seem like nit-picking, in medicine the devil is in the detail. Patients and practitioners need to be aware of what is in these treatments, and how they actually work. Ignorance or poor understanding cannot be accepted from those who deal in health and wellness. Strict regulations are approaching which will provide rigid guidelines on the terminology used and on who can actually provide these treatments, however out of principal and ethical obligation, this should already be in practice by the clinics and individuals in this field.

In conclusion…

The purpose of this article is not to attack or to defend, to discourage or to create worry or uncertainty, but rather the opposite. A better understanding of these types of procedures ensures better treatment by the practitioner, and a demand for higher standards from the client. This in turn forces development and positive growth in the industry, and further acceptance of these treatments into mainstream systems. This is a relatively simple breakdown of the issues and aspects of the treatments, so keep an eye on the blog for some more in depth exploration into this fascinating subject!

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