Does Stem Cell Therapy Live Up to the Hype?

From the lecture series: The Skeptic's Guide to Health, Medicine, and the Media

By Roy Benaroch, MD, Emory University

Stem cell therapy has been promoted as a miracle cure for degenerative diseases. When examining various articles that sing the praises of stem cell transplants, though, we must cut through the hype to see whether the information can be verified by real medical results.

Embryonic stem cells , Cellular therapy , 3d rendering
(Image: Giovanni Cancemi/Shutterstock)

Did Stem Cells Aid “Mr. Hockey’s” Remarkable Recovery?

Gordie Howe was one of the greatest professional hockey players of all time. Though born in Canada, he spent most of his career with the Detroit Red Wings, and holds NHL records for the most games and seasons played—records that are unlikely to ever be beaten, since he played that physically punishing game until age 52. His toughness and longevity earned him the nickname “Mr. Hockey.”

At age 86, already suffering from dementia, Gordie Howe had a major stroke, paralyzing the right side of his body. Media reports in the weeks afterward said that there was some improvement.

About two months later, he was rushed to the hospital after a feared second stroke, though some reports said this deterioration came from dehydration. In other words, as often happens after a stroke, there were some ups and downs.

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What happened next seemed to be nothing short of a miracle. Mr. Hockey underwent a procedure in Tijuana, Mexico, where millions of stem cells were infused into his spinal column. The hope was that these cells could then migrate up to his brain to help with repair.

He also had an intravenous infusion of a different kind of stem cells into his blood, though the rationale for that part of the treatment wasn’t as clear. But what was clear was that his family was overjoyed at his progress afterward.

They reported that for the first time after his stroke, he walked unassisted. He was said in media reports to have made almost incredible physical and cognitive progress.

Some headline samples: From Canada’s Global News, “Gordie Howe’s Health Improved Dramatically after Stem Cell Treatment,” and from Fox Sports, “Experimental Stem Cell Treatment Does Wonders for Gordie Howe.”

It was a wonderful story, and it was natural for people, even people who weren’t the biggest hockey fans, to cheer for Gordie Howe’s recovery. But the story had a second side, too.

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Skeptics Shed Light on Stem Cell Story

Though headlines and reporters said that Howe had undergone an experimental treatment, sometimes worded as “treatment as part of a clinical trial,” no such trial had been registered. To this day, no trial including this kind of treatment for this kind of patient has been published.

Mr. Howe’s recovery, as dramatic as it was, could have been the routine recovery often seen after stroke and dehydration. Howe was also getting excellent care from physical and speech therapists. Perhaps their help could have played a role.

Finally, the family’s involvement with the company that worked with the Tijuana clinic raised some eyebrows, as well. Gordie’s son, Murray, most likely honestly thought that the stem cell treatment helped his dad. Yet he became an investor, and information about his father’s recovery became rich marketing material.

A few bloggers pointed out that the therapy ordinarily cost upward of $35,000 per stem cell infusion, a fee that was waived for the famous Gordie Howe. But almost all contemporary, big-name media reports that can be found lack any of these skeptical points.

It was too good of a story: A lovable sports legend saved by a modern medical miracle. Who wants to be the journalist who stands up to ask the tough questions?

A factor contributing to the optimistic reporting, in retrospect, was that many of the stories came from the sports pages, written by sports journalists ill-equipped to skeptically look at the science behind this story. They didn’t seem to appreciate that a single-subject anecdote, no matter how compelling, doesn’t prove that a treatment works.

That’s what science is all about: Understanding that the world is complicated and that medical treatments might seem to work for a variety of reasons. To be sure, you must experiment, comparing in this case stroke victims who got stem cell therapy to stroke victims who did not, using a large number, and controlling for other factors like the severity of the stroke. 

Stem Cells: Promising But Risky

Stem cells themselves do hold promise. We’re talking about human cells that are in a primitive, early state—cells that can then develop into different cells, perhaps to repair or replace cells damaged by disease or injury in many areas of the body.

But because of the promise that stem cells may help multiple, serious, and otherwise-untreatable diseases, it’s very easy for the public and the press to get confused about the current state of the science and the very real limitations we know about how stem cells work. People can easily fall prey to half-baked ideas and shoddy, fake “science” trials that are merely props to extract money from the vulnerable.

Also, real people have been harmed by fake stem-cell scammers. As reported in The New York Times, three women had permanent, severe eye damage to their sight after stem cell infusions into their eyes, as part of an unproven treatment administered by a loosely regulated clinic in Florida.

STEM word concept button on keyboard
(Image: Lemau Studio/Shutterstock)

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has now started to crack down on stem-cell clinics, cautioning people against unfounded claims and uses of this technology. As of now, the only stem-cell-derived products approved for use by the FDA are from umbilical cord stem cells, and are used to treat only a few rare blood disorders.

Stem cell hype has cost a lot of money, and caused real harm, too, but there are other consequences. These include misleading the public, creating unrealistic expectations, and making it more difficult for researchers to pursue the slow, methodical pace of real research into these techniques. Why do the work of figuring out if stem cells work and the best way to use them when you can fly to Mexico for your infusions?

Gordie Howe’s story was inspiring, and it’s impossible not to root for him. But that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to go to an unlicensed clinic for an expensive treatment that has not been medically proven to work.

That’s why we need good science reporting: To separate the proven from the unproven, to protect us from false promises and scams, and to make sure that we can all benefit from the best treatments and ideas that medicine has to offer.

Gordie Howe died in June 2016, about 18 months after his stem cell treatment. Media reports about his health for the last year or so of his life are scant; he did make a few, brief public appearances, as media attention after his stem cell treatment withered away.

None of the big media pieces after his death even mentioned the stem cells—not in reports by The Los Angeles Times, ESPN, or CNN. They concentrated instead on his wonderful career, which is fitting for Mr. Hockey. But it begs the question: How many people, during the hype after his treatment, wrote that big check to take that trip to Mexico?

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What Is Alternative Medicine?

Stem cells, used in ways that have no scientific support, are a small part of what’s often referred to as “alternative medicine.” That’s a very broad term, encompassing things as simple, inexpensive, and benign as deep breathing exercises, to modalities that seem perhaps more incongruous to many people, like long-distance faith healing.

Some alternative medicine methods are quite old, like acupuncture; some were invented fairly recently, like chiropractic, invented in 1895. Some techniques that were once squarely in the hands of alternative medicine providers, like biofeedback, are now used routinely by mainstream physicians.

Alternative Medicine Health Herb Therapy Concept

What makes alternative medicine distinct from other kinds of medical approaches is that their healing or health-giving effects are either unproven (never studied), or have in many cases clearly been disproven, sometimes by medical trials, or sometimes by our understanding of how the natural world works.

There’s a grey zone, too. Many therapies used by medical doctors also lack a strong evidence base.

Some therapeutic tools from the world of alternative medicine do work for some indications, like certain dietary supplements for conditions like migraine headaches.

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Critically Evaluating Articles on Alternative Medicine

The semantics are less important than the proof: Does an intervention work?

Think about it: What do you call alternative medicine that’s been shown to work? Simply, medicine.

If it’s been shown to not work, and it’s still being pushed either by a physician or an alternative health provider, we should call it quackery. If we’re just not sure, we ought to be honest about that too by calling it “unproven” or “untested.”

If there’s a new study about something from the realm of alternative medicine, you should ask the same critical questions that you would for any medical study.

Who funded it? What were the results? Was the study well-designed and well-executed? Are the results reliable, and to whom do they apply?

Answering these questions will help us determine whether the treatment is a viable option for ourselves or our loved ones.

Common Questions About Stem Cell Therapy

Q: What is stem cell therapy and how does it work?

Stem cell therapy uses stem cells to replace injured tissue. This therapy is promising because the cells are grown in the lab, and thus it would solve the problem of having to find an organ donor, which can be difficult.

Q: What diseases can be cured with stem cells?

Stem cells can treat damage caused by diseases and injuries as far-ranging as heart attacks, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and spinal cord injury.

Q: Is stem cell therapy covered by insurance?

In the case of specific stem cell therapy treatments that have been rigorously tested and deemed effective, such as for leukemia, insurance will often cover the costs. In general, though, insurance does not cover stem cell injections as the majority of these treatments are still relatively new on the market and have not yet been clinically proven or extensively safety-tested.

Q: How long do stem cell injections last?

It usually takes anywhere from three to eight weeks before patients begin to experience the benefits of stem cell injections. Patients will then usually experience increasing benefits for six months. After stabilizing, though, these benefits should then last for years.

This article was updated on August 6, 2020

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