Pain opens the door for dubious stem cell treatments

About 50 million adults in the United States have chronic pain, which can make daily life a struggle, spark anxiety and depression, and lead to a cascade of problems for individuals, families and society. We’ve learned the hard way that opioids are not the answer. Wouldn’t it be great if there was a solution that was safe, effective and cutting-edge?

Enter stem cells. These starter kits for the human body have been used for years to treat disease, as in the case of bone marrow transplants to replace immune cells destroyed by chemotherapy. But the usefulness of stem cells so far has been limited; they’re tricky beasts that don’t easily bend to our will. Scientists are experimenting to see if they can re-engineer the cells to treat a range of diseases, including heart failure and Parkinson’s. But the purveyors of promise at stem cell clinics aren’t waiting for the scientists’ results and are enthusiastically marketing stem cell treatments to ease pain, including from arthritis, which affects 23 percent of adults in the United States, among other problems.

This issue’s cover story, “Stem cell clinics’ much-hyped treatments lack scientific support“, details how people are sometimes being misled or injured by practitioners selling stem cells. Ads proliferating on billboards and online tell us just what we’d like to hear: all natural, no surgery, regenerative. Globally, it’s a $2 billion business — and growing, reports our contributing correspondent Laura Beil. None of the treatments in the ads have been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. And there’s scant evidence of benefit.

Researchers are trying to figure out if stem cell treatments can help with conditions such as knee arthritis. Over decades of use, the cartilage in knees can break down, causing pain, stiffness and swelling. The goal is to have stem cells help restore cartilage, or at least reduce pain. Doing a controlled trial requires using a sham treatment, for example, an injection of saline, and some studies have found that people improved just as much with saline injections as with stem cells. Scientists don’t yet know if the saline really helped, or if it had more of a placebo effect. Given the lack of clarity, it’s easy to imagine talking oneself into giving stem cells a try.

That’s especially so since evidence-based treatments for knee arthritis lack the sheen of cutting-edge technology. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends 150 minutes of moderate physical activity each week, which is much cheaper than stem cell treatments and proven to reduce pain and lift mood. I’m dismayed that people in pain are being exploited by some bad actors, and I hope Beil’s excellent article (and her new podcast on stem cell scams, “Bad Batch”) will help more people learn that very few of these treatments have been tested for safety and effectiveness. Too often early research results in petri dishes and lab animals are described as breakthroughs, only to not pan out later. Humans, being who we are, remember the exciting potential, not the cautions that any possible benefit remains very far away.

Nancy Shute is editor in chief of Science News Media Group. Previously, she was an editor at NPR and US News & World Report, and a contributor to National Geographic and Scientific American. She is a past president of the National Association of Science Writers.