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Stem Cell Treatments: 6 False-Hope Warning Signs

Unproven, Risky Treatments Mislead Patients to Seek Cutting-Edge Therapy
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Stem Cell Treatments and the FDA continued...

"If you can't establish the benefits, you should not take the risk," Hare says.

Many stem cell clinics advertise that their procedures are safe. Since they are taking your own cells, concentrating them, and giving them back to you, what could be the harm?

"Let's say the therapy itself is completely neutral, no harm and no foul comes from it. You still are going through a medical procedure, going to a doctor's office, being put under anesthesia, getting liposuction, and then having the material injected back into you. And the first rule doctors learn is that there is no such thing as a benign procedure," Hare says.

Real Risks, Unknown Benefits

Every treatment has some risks. So the question comes down to whether the benefits outweigh the risks. And those studies haven't been done yet.

"The most patients can hope for is that the injection triggers some reaction in their bodies that has some benefit. And that is optimistic," Levine says. "The least-bad risk is financial harm from the costs of these treatments. But patients may also wind up sicker, because one thing about injecting cells is they stay in the body and may not do what they want. It's hard to know how harm is being done, because most of these clinics do not follow up on patients and have little incentive to do so."

Many patients claim they are much better or even cured by unorthodox stem cell treatments -- including some who received the same treatment as Ben Byer.

The procedure he underwent was -- and still is -- being advertised to patients, who must travel to China to get the treatment. It's not advertised as a stem-cell therapy, but uses stem-cell-like cells from aborted fetuses.

"The doctor took the cells, nurtured them in a test tube, and then injected them in two places in the brain and in the spinal cord, way up in a dangerous place," Byer says. "Remarkably, Ben survived the surgery."

Not all unapproved stem-cell treatments involve such risky surgery. A common technique gets stem cells from fat removed via liposuction. That's less risky than brain injections but is not without risk.

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