All medical care, whether that’s drugs, surgical solutions or devices, should be both safe and effective. In recent years, stem cell therapy has become increasingly in the public eye, particularly in the treatment of arthritis and joint deterioration, and covered widely in the media as the supposed wonder cure. But does it fulfil those two criteria: is stem cell therapy safe and effective?
In a recent article published in the Bone and Joint Journal, Members of the Biologics Association, an international group established to advocate for the responsible use of biologics in clinical practice and to assess the safety and efficacy of biologic interventions, highlighted the growing concern that clinical centres around the world are making “unwarranted claims or are performing risky biological procedures”.
Stem cell therapy is a fast-growing industry around the world with clinics claiming to be able to treat a wide range of conditions, from erectile dysfunction to autism, often with little scientific evidence to back their claims. It is also increasingly advertised as a solution to joint wear and tear.
The premise is that the patient’s own stem cells are harvested, usually from your bone marrow or adipose tissue, processed and then delivered into the affected joint, thereby using your body’s own healing powers to reverse the natural deterioration that occurs over time. Stem cells are able to differentiate into specialised cells, so may be able to replace damaged cells, including cartilage cells in the joint. It is also possible that they can cause growth factors to flood the joint, helping to repair any damage
Is stem cell therapy for knee or hip arthritis safe?
Stem cell therapy using adult stem cells is generally considered safe because the cells are taking from the patient and therefore the risk of a reaction are minimised. Common side effects are usually swelling and pain at the injection site but that is usually temporary.
Treating knee or hip arthritis is less likely to result in complications compared to some of the other uses of stem cell therapy, but there is some research that suggests it may increase the risk of tumours developing.
Is stem cell therapy effective?
Setting aside whether stem cell therapy is safe, the other consideration is its efficacy. Proponents will cite anecdotal evidence of positive results, but no large-scale studies have taken place and some evidence suggests that it doesn’t work any better than a placebo. The challenge is that there is no standard treatment which can be tested – every clinic may follow a different process and there is no guide as to how many stem cells need to be harvested to treat specific conditions. At the moment evidence that there is any benefit from stem cell treatment is limited, despite some of the claims made. For this reason, it is important that this therapy is properly evaluated in a scientific manner in properly controlled clinics.
The recent article in the Bone and Joint Journal also pointed out that certain clinics are being less than scrupulous in how they exploit the hype surrounding stem cell therapy and may be guilty of false advertising, making it harder for the prospective patient to evaluate the safety and efficacy of the treatment offered. Stem cell treatment can be very expensive and it is important that patients understand that this remains a relatively experimental intervention, before agreeing to undergo this treatment.
“Regenerative medicine is one of the most dynamic fields of science and medicine. While cell-mediated tissue formation and repair characterize all of biology, the prospect of specific augmentation of cellular processes through harvest, processing and transplantation remain in their early stages of development… The challenge facing regulators is to balance increasing calls for faster access to medical products, while protecting the public from unnecessary risks including delayed effective treatment, adverse events and financial loss.”
During this current unfolding situation with Coronavirus, Mr Simon Bridle is still available for consultations. He will be able to see clinically urgent cases in his clinics, but most consultations will be remote by telemedicine, either telephone or video link. Appointments can be arranged by contacting his PA Adriana on 020 8947 9524 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.