Despite the lack of scientific proof, stem cell therapy is becoming increasingly popular, with dozens of clinics open across Canada and hundreds in the United States. These clinics are offering treatment for a wide range of diseases including asthma, multiple sclerosis, crohn’s, osteoarthritis and inflammatory arthritis. A recent study found that Canadian businesses are making strong and unproven claims about the benefits of stem cell therapy. Advertisements intentionally use scientific language which can mislead consumers into thinking they are science-based therapies. While there are credible facilities that do stem cell transplants for conditions such as cancers of the blood, there isn’t sufficient research to support the safety and efficacy for treating other diseases such as osteoarthritis or inflammatory arthritis. As stated by researcher Leigh Turner on CTV news, “you have a lot of companies and clinics setting up shop and there’s this pretty big gap between the marketing claims they make and the current state of stem cell research.” A different article exploring the boom of stem cell clinics in America, found that advertisements use patient testimonial to appeal to consumers, which may just be a result of the placebo effect.
These treatments have not been approved by Health Canada or the FDA in America, but they are able to keep operating largely due to gaps in regulation policy. In Canada, it is legal for business to treat patients with stem cells taken from their own body, as long as they are not altered too much or used for purposes too different from their original function. These parameters are not specifically defined, so businesses are able to continue advertising and offering treatments. Health Canada is reportedly working to address these gaps and the “grey area” related to the subject. Since these treatments are not approved by Health Canada or covered by private health insurance, patients must pay out of pocket, and the therapy can be very expensive, without any benefit. For example, a Canadian woman spent more than $10,000 on stem cell therapy for treatment of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), and did not see any positive results. The Canadian Orthopaedic Association has addressed stem cell therapy by stating that “non-evidence based treatments and particularly therapies that involve significant cost to the patient and pose unknown potential for harm, should be strongly discouraged.” Read the full statement here.
Diseases such as ALS, chron’s and arthritis can be incredibly painful and debilitating; it’s understandable how a new therapy can represent hope and appeal to members of the community. It is possible that future research will identify ways that arthritis and other diseases can be treated by stem cell therapy, but for now, there is not enough research to prove the safety or efficacy of the therapy. All individuals have the right to make their own healthcare decisions and choose treatments that align with their values and personal preference, but it is important to be aware of current lack of evidence behind stem cell therapy and the possibility of risks and complications. The main concern about stem cell therapy is that patients may be misled by advertisements and put at risk financially and physically.