Why Stem Cell Injections For Arthritis Are Snake Oil

The skeptical cardiologist has had a few patients undergo stem cell injections for knee osteoarthritis. My sense based on a brief look at the literature in this area was that these stem cell clinics were unproven and over-priced. They typically cost 5 or 6 thousand dollars an injection, are minimally effective (no better than placebo injections), and are not covered by insurance.

I felt compelled to research the area more deeply when I discovered that Ozzie Smith, the Hall of Fame former Cardinal shortstop, had his name attached to a stem cell clinic in St. Louis and actively promoted it on their website. Ozzie, heretofore, my favorite Cardinal, auctioned off  his 13  Gold Gloves and 11 All-Star Game rings in 2012 and now, sadly, is lending his name to a shady area of pseudoscientific medicine.

In the course of my research I came across an incredibly detailed well-written and researched article posted on John Byrne, MD’s Skeptical Medicine website entitled Dubious Stem Cell Clinics.

After reading Byrne’s article I realized that there was no purpose in proceeding any further with my own research-this is what I would post if I had the requisite time, intelligence and skill-so I hope all will read the original.


Byrne notes that although  stem cell treatment is being investigated for all kinds of conditions

, as of 2018, the only legitimate stem cell treatments used in clinical practice are in bone marrow transplantation, burn treatment, bone grafting in orthopedics and corneal generation from limbal stem cells in ophthalmology. And of those, only bone marrow transplantation in cancer patients has a consensus from large scale clinical trials. There currently are no other legitimate treatments that are warranted for general use by current science. We simply are not at that level.

Despite Ozzie Smith’s ringing endorsements there is no evidence for  any benefit of orthopedic stem cell injections or PRP injections, another unproven treatment offered at the Ozzie Smith IMAC Regenerative Center

Experts in the field of stem cell therapy who are not out to make a quick buck are pretty unanimous in this assessment as Byrne notes:

George Daley, MD, PhD, a member of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute’s executive committee and past president of the International Society for Stem Cell Research, added,

“we are seeing a growing number [of legitimate clinical trials] but all such uses are experimental … and there is great skepticism as to whether we have” the scientific knowledge and basis even to “predict that these will be effective.” “It may,” he said, “take decades before there is certainty.” “The only stem cell therapies that have been proven safe and effective,” he said, “are those constituting what is known as bone marrow transplantation for treatment of some cancers.”

However, such limitations do not prevent contemporary snake-oil salesmen from selling dubious treatments to desperate people by making unwarranted claims about stem cell therapies. “Stem Cell” is the new “Magnetic” and “Quantum” in the world of quackery.As with many scams, it is sold using “sciency” words and riding on the coattails of legitimate science.

“Like snake oil salesmen, clinics claiming astonishing curative results from stem cell treatments often do not have licensed physicians administrating the treatments, no scientific evidence supporting their work, and they rely on testimonials for advertising and promoting the value of their product.” 

Byrne goes on to give the history of stem cells, discuss the types of stem cells and why translation of their promise to clinical results has been slow.
In a fascinating section he compares the hijacking of “quantum” for use by pseudoscience peddlers to the hijacking of “stem cell.”

With the promise of what sounds like a magic technology, these clinics offer treatments for conditions across a wide range including orthopedics, pain management, neurologic problems, immune diseases, respiratory diseases, urologic, sexual, cosmetic, cardiovascular and dermatologic disorders. They advertise treatments for aging, diabetes, hair loss, muscular dystrophy, vision problems, gastrointestinal disorders, Alzheimer’s and autism.

Products are on sale now promoting magical-sounding claims of skin rejuvenation with the words “stem cell” attached to their names. Many products promote plant-based stem cell creams (yes, you read that correctly). One company’s advertisement claims, “(our) cutting edge technology brings an innovative anti-aging skin care line. Plant stem cells are the source of unlimited energy and the key to herbal growth and regeneration”.

I found this paragraph to be spot on in describing the techniques of the modern snake-oil salesman and worthy of noting:

Many sites use the language of pseudoscience to make specific-sounding claims, but in reality, are vacuous. Motor City StemCell claims that their products “Control the immune system”, “regulate inflammation” and “provide trophic support”. The operative words here are “control”, “regulate”, and “supports”. Skeptics recognize these as “weasel words”. They do not make specific claims for which the claimants may be held to account. Other weasel words include “boosts” and “enhances”.

When such words are used, often they are accompanied by the Quack Miranda Warning:

“These statement(s) have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.” 
The tactics of selling snake oil have become sophisticated over the years, but the overall strategy has remained the same. Find vulnerable customers (“marks”); make bold claims of a “cure for everything”; claim 100% safety and efficacy; use sciency-sounding technobabble; point to legitimate research as if it supports your claims; promote testimonials from happy customers; charge high fees for unproven or implausible
products and services; attack your critics as being closed minded, or in the pocket of “Big Pharma”; repeat.
Based on my  own research into this area  I totally agree with Byrne’s conclusion
Stem Cell research is a promising field. There may be a day in the future in which there are many disorders that can be effectively and safely treated with stem cell therapy. That day is not here yet.

 

However, we currently have many clinics across the world offering treatments under the guise of “Stem Cell Therapy”. Their claims go well beyond the current science and are therefore not justified. These treatments are not regulated or endorsed by agencies such as the FDA. The consumer will pay large sums of money — tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars — to receive unproven, unregulated “treatments” at their own expense, often under the guise of a “clinical trial”. No legitimate research organization charges participants to participate in clinical trials.

These treatments have unknown risks and unproven benefits. They are marketed with fancy websites, testimonials and expensive dinner seminars by providers — some of whom are actual MD’s or DO’s and should know better — with no regard to scientific standards or ethics. They will use scientific-style jargon and promise miraculous cures for just about anything that ails you. This is a scam.


Yes, indeed this is a scam. And we will have to add some of these attributes to my #1 red flag of quackery.
Weasel words and the Quack Miranda Statement are definitely highly specific markers for quack web health sites.
Protrophicly Yours,
-ACP

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