Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Snake Oil?

In the last post, I discussed the sizable buzz out there about the phrase "stem cells" and how multiple groups were cashing in on that buzz with claims that don't make allot of scientific sense.  As an update, I had an exchange this past week with one of the companies using various chemicals to mobilize adult stem cells from the bone marrow to the circulation.  After a bit of scientific back and forth, it became clear that their web site was a bit misleading.  It makes it seem like they are mobilizing adult mesenchymal stem cells into the circulation, when in fact they admit that they are mobilizing a hybrid blood/muscle stem cell progenitor.  While this cell could be helpful from a theoretical standpoint in body building applications (to build muscle), of the 5,000 or so studies currently in the national library of medicine, only a handful reference this cell.  We don't know much about it at this point in time.

Perhaps Brian Alexander of MSNBC put it best:

“ADULT STEM CELLS are the BEST-KEPT SECRET in today’s wellness…” boasted a flyer for a dietary supplement called VitalStem. Take it and increase “the number of circulating stem cells in your body.” Not only can it “replace diseased cells with healthy cells” and provide “anti-inflammatory and immune system support” but also give users “mental clarity and mood elevation.”

But the products are really just a repackaging of a supplement that has been marketed aggressively since the 1980s, a form of blue-green algae called aphanizomenon flos-aquae. The science behind the claimed benefits for aphanizomenon is slight — whether the claim is for immune boosting as it was 20 years ago, or stem-cell enhancement as it is today. In fact, there has long been concern about the presence of toxins in blue-green algae products, though you wouldn’t know it from the marketers at the trade show. 

Brian is describing some of the claims being made at the A4M conference in Las Vegas this week.  Click here for full story.  

As I have blogged before, stem cells and other autologous biologics are no different than Penicillin.  First, a procedure must be put in place to ensure that the autologous biologic is in fact what it claims to be.  This procedure would at least need to involve isolation of that cell and culture expansion to a much higher number.  Then, dosing needs to be figured out. Finally, how the cell is applied to the area becomes a whole area of study in itself.  For example, applying the cell to fix bones is likely different than trying to fix cartilage or tendons.  

So again, there is no easy lunch here.  These cells have great promise, but simply slapping the phrase "stem cells" on a bottle of ancient supplements from the 1960's or a process using otherwise dangerous chemicals to bump up circulating blood cells isn't enough...