Buyer Beware: Not All Stem Cell Therapies Are Alike
Stem cells seem to be everywhere these days; from cosmetics to cancer, “stem cell treatments” promise to offer anti-aging and longevity benefits of all kinds. These days, the term “stem cells” is so overused that it is becoming similar to “natural”, “non-GMO” and “fat-free” labels on food products.
So, what exactly do we mean when we claim to offer a stem cell therapy? Well, one must look carefully at the “small print” and determine exactly what is being offered.
For one, a true stem cell treatment involves cell therapy. That is, the provision of living cells to achieve a biologic benefit. The cells must be viable and derived from living tissue. In cancer therapy, hematopoietic stem cells generally are obtained from bone marrow or whole blood samples. In musculoskeletal and regenerative applications, mesenchymal stem cells are derived from fat tissue or bone marrow. These cell therapy treatments provide autologous (meaning that they are derived from your own tissue, rather than transplanted from a donor), living cells that help to promote healing and tissue regeneration.
Platelet Rich Plasma (PRP) therapy is another cell therapy which provides growth and tissue healing factors. In this case, platelets from a blood sample are extracted, suspended in your own plasma and administered. While a wonderful treatment modality with many applications, it is not a stem cell therapy.
The process of harvesting and purifying stem cells is complex and requires precision. Fat samples from a liposuction procedure contain many millions of stem cells, but they also contain many other cell types and tissue debris which must be removed and discarded, so that the stem cells can be extracted, washed and prepared for proper administration. The same holds true for bone marrow samples. If you are seeking a clinic that offers “stem cell treatment” be sure to inquire about the procedures used to obtain and provide the cellular therapy. Simple fat or bone marrow transfers without extensive processing first does not constitute proper stem cell therapy.
What about all those shampoos facial creams and lotions and even nutraceutical products that claim to provide stem cells? Of course, those products do not contain living cells, but generally contain extracts from cell cultures that may promote tissue rejuvenation. Because stem cells are so rich in growth factors and tissue healing peptides and cytokines, these extracts may have valuable properties. But this is not really stem cell therapy!
Some clinics are offering “stem cell therapies” that involve products that are derived from amniotic fluid, umbilical or placental tissue. Because there are so many growth factors and immune enhancing peptides in these products, they have often been advertised as stem cell therapy. These products can be quite beneficial for immunologic regulation and regenerative therapies. But they are not examples of cellular therapy all and contain no living cells.
If you are looking for a stem cell treatment to treat arthritis, musculoskeletal injuries, or to enhance wound healing, be sure to seek out a program that offers autologous cell therapy in which your own tissue is used to extract and purify mesenchymal stem cells. Simpler forms of treatment, such as amniotic fluid extract may be of value, but is not the same as a stem cell treatment.
So be careful, ask questions, and make sure that you understand what specific treatments are being offered. Don’t fall for the stem cell buzzword!
For more information about stem cell therapy, check out our Stem Cell FAQs.