Stem cell “regenerative” medicine (human stem cell therapy) has become a mushrooming cottage industry in the U.S., with an estimated 500 or more for-profit clinics cropping up in recent years. These clinics offer pricey stem cell therapies that purport to treat everything from autism to multiple sclerosis, adult respiratory distress syndrome, congestive heart failure, and lower back, knee and hip pain, often without any scientific evidence to support how well they work.

Stem cell photoWhat are stem cells?

Stem cells are the origin of our physical bodies, the cells that develop into blood, brain, bones, and all your organs.  There are different types of stem cells that come from different places in the body or are formed at different times in our lives. These include embryonic stem cells that exist only at the earliest stages of development; and tissue-specific (or adult) stem cells that appear after fetal development and remain in our bodies throughout life.

Stem cell regeneration exaggerations

Knee osteoarthritis is an especially popular medical condition targeted by these clinics, likely because millions of Americans suffer from persistent knee pain.

A common claim made by these clinics is that stem cells can be extracted from a patient’s fat or bone marrow (or donor harvested bone marrow) and then injected into the patient’s arthritic knee to regenerate cartilage and other loss tissue.

Clinics charge hugely exaggerated prices ranging from $4,000 to $25,000 per procedure for this therapy, which isn’t covered by insurance. Some patients reportedly have racked up bills of over $100,000.

Iowans fall victim

Knoxville Hospital & Clinics Orthopaedic Surgeon Dr. Todd Peterson discussed the stem cell deception at a recent seminar. He said, “There is no scientific evidence to support claims that injection of stem cells into the knee has any regenerative properties, or that the treatment is safe or effective for their intended use.”

Peterson told his audience that he has seen many Iowans who have fallen victim to these miraculous-sounding promises and modern-day quackery, only to discover that the stem cells treatments failed to provide the desired knee pain relief.

Dr. Peterson provides patients with safe and scientifically proven nonsurgical and surgical options for knee pain relief, including robotics-assisted partial knee replacement.

Regulation of stem cells

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates stem cells in the U.S. to ensure that they are safe and effective.

Recently, the FDA moved to crack down on unproven stem cell therapies after reports of patients suffering severe damage from treatment. The only stem cell-based product approved by the FDA, Hemacord, is for umbilical cord blood-derived stem cells for blood cancers and other disorders.

FDA officials have warned the lack of evidence for unapproved stem cell treatment is “worrisome.” Officials have cited reports of serious side effects, including two people who became legally blind after receiving the treatment in their eyes for macular degeneration.  In another case, a patient developed paralysis. They also shared other safety concerns, such as causing tumors to grow.

Advice for consumers

The FDA is concerned that the hope that patients have for cures not yet available may leave them vulnerable to unscrupulous providers of stem cell treatments that are potentially harmful.

Before you invest your hard-earned money, know exactly what you are paying for.

FDA cautions consumers, “If you are considering having stem cell treatment, check the credentials of providers, avoid the hard sell, and involve a medical specialist.”  Make sure your “specialist” is licensed to practice medicine, and can legally perform any injections; and that they are not just a salesperson.

Victims of stem cell consumer fraud should contact their state consumer protection agency, Better Business Bureau, state attorney general, and state medical or chiropractic board.


Contributing sources: Dr. Todd Peterson, Food and Drug Administration, Web MD, John Hopkins Medicine, and the Arizona Center for Advanced Medicine

The information on this blog is provided for general information purposes and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, care, treatment or evaluation; nor should it be used in diagnosing a health condition. You are encouraged to consult your health care provider if you or a family member has or suspect you have a medical problem.