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Foolhardy expectations from stem cell products

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I have received a couple of queries regarding capsules or drink solutions which are supposed to boost the number of stem cells in the body and these could assist in cellular renewal or rejuvenation. I understand these are being marketed locally by direct sellers who are part of multilevel networking companies.

These stem-cell-enhancing preparations come from blue-green algae sources, which as far back as I can remember, have been promoted  to be a panacea for all sorts of illnesses. Apparently the claim that it can boost stem cell production or its release from the bone marrow puts a scientific basis to it, which is attuned with the times since stem cell treatment is now the exciting buzz word.

I last reviewed the scientific literature on stem cell treatment earlier this year when I was requested to give a lecture partly discussing the effects of adult stem cells on the cardiovascular system. I remember coming across some articles on the potential role of blue-green algae in enhancing stem cell production but most of these studies were done either on mice and other experimental animals or in tissue cultures in the laboratory. There’s still a long way between any positive results noted in these experiments to actual clinical benefits that can be extrapolated in humans.

Time and again we hear of and read so many clinical trials showing a negative effect of a drug in humans when all its preclinical trials in experimental animals and small trials in few healthy human volunteers showed beneficial results with no evidence of harm or toxicity.

‘First do no harm’

In the practice of medicine, a cardinal rule is “First do no harm.” There is still an unresolved issue about the potential toxicity of some blue-green algae preparations. Some products have been shown to contain a significant amount of toxins which can potentially cause liver failure. I can’t remember the number of cases of liver toxicity reported for which blue-green algae has been implicated.

If there’s smoke, there might be fire. Unless the smoke really clears and the potential harm and toxicity by blue-green algae are ruled out, it would probably be not good advice to take it.

I have nothing against natural dietary supplements so long as there’s no reason to worry about any potential harm, and the reported benefits have scientific basis. When patients show me all sorts of supplements and ask if they could take them, I usually tell them to go ahead unless there’s reasonable doubt about the product’s safety. In fact, I take and prescribe a few tried-and-tested supplements myself.

It can’t be overemphasized  and I think it’s worth reiterating that there are still a lot of unanswered questions in stem cell science, and exploiting it for commercial reasons is doing the consumers a lot of disservice. Telling them only half of the story, insofar as the effectiveness and safety of the product is concerned, is also being quite deceptive.

We’re all impressed by the reported amazing, almost magical effects of the body’s own stem cells. They’re supposed to have the ability to become any type of cell, something like the Joker in a card game. They have the ability to perpetuate themselves through self-renewal. Hence, it’s a very appealing marketing concept for those who want to seek the elixir of eternal youth.

Unresolved controversy

However, one unresolved controversy about stem cell treatment is its potential to promote the development of cancer and its spread. In the body, many pathways that are classically associated with cancer may also regulate normal stem cell development.

Because stem cell and cancer development share similar pathways, experts are now researching the relationship between stem cells and tumor cells. They have shown similarities in the mechanisms that regulate self-renewal of normal stem cells and cancer cells. There is also a suggestion that tumor cells might arise from normal stem cells, and that tumors might actually contain “cancer stem cells.”

This theory sounds logical because just as stem cells are considered as highly active, potent, self-renewing cells, cancer can also be considered a disease of unregulated self-renewal.

Cancers of the blood like leukemia  strongly support this likely relationship and reinforce the theory that normal stem cells—which can be transformed by mutations—can play a role in cancer cell proliferation.

I share the enthusiasm of the scientific community on the legitimate breakthroughs of stem cell research. There’s definitely good basis for the great enthusiasm worldwide for the potential of stem cell research in providing an excellent platform for understanding various human diseases and developing innovative therapeutic solutions to treat devastating diseases.

If one has a severe life-threatening and disabling disease, the potential harm of tumor development with stem cell treatment should be a relatively minor price to pay. But if you only use stem cell treatment for cosmetic purposes, hoping it can bathe you with the water from the fountain of youth, that might be a little foolhardy.


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  • Mark Andersen

    Dear Dr Castillo
    There are products that HAVE been INDEPENDENTLY tested on humans in Double blind crossover studies and have been shown to increase the number of circulation adult stem cells by about 40% within one hour of consumption.

    The same company has done studies which show that in bodies with more circulating adult stem cells breast cancers are retarded compared to ones where there are less adult stem cells circulating. A Mouse model was used in this testing for Ethical reasons…, you can’t really treat one human but deny another human a potentially life saving treatment.

    I notice in your other articles you blur the line by not acknowledging the fundamental differences between Embryonic Stem Cells and Adult Stem Cells or Bone Marrow Stem Cells as they are also known. As you are an intelligent man I can only assume that this is a deliberate attempt to sow the seeds of confusion in this matter.

    It may interest you to note that the Vatican opposes embryonic stem cell research but is in favour of Adult stem cell research. (I have a copy of a letter from the Vatican stating this).



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