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article image`Unlicensed clinics offering stem cell treatments across Canada

By Karen Graham     Sep 26, 2018 in Health
Dr. Leigh Turner, a Canadian citizen, and an associate professor at the University of Minnesota Center for Bioethics surveyed the marketing claims made by unlicensed clinics across Canada offering stem cell treatments.
A new peer-reviewed study that surveys the Canadian direct-to-consumer marketplace of companies advertising putative stem cell treatments for various clinical indications has been published in the peer-reviewed journal Regenerative Medicine.
In his research, Turner identified a total of 30 Canadian businesses marketing stem cell interventions provided at 43 clinics. Ontario has 24 clinics, British Columbia has eight, Alberta has six, Quebec has three, and Nova Scotia and Saskatchewan each has a single clinic - but all of them are marketing stem cell treatments.
But here is where the consumer gets hit in the pocketbook. The treatments or interventions are not approved by Health Canada or covered by provincial health insurance plans. This means patients can pay thousands of dollars out of pocket for what he calls “unproven” stem cell therapies.
Microscopic view of embryonic stem cells
Microscopic view of embryonic stem cells
Mauricio Lima, AFP/File
“I think it’s hard for individual patients to navigate what’s out there,” Turner said in an interview from Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minn.
“And the sicker you are and the more desperate you are and the more hopeful that there’s something out there, the easier it is to be taken advantage of by businesses that are savvy marketers,” he said, according to the Toronto Star.
The clinics have become a lucrative business for smart entrepreneurs, and "they just sort of set up shop and put out a shingle on the Internet and start making marketing claims and begin to advertise stem cell treatments,” said Turner, noting that there are now hundreds of such clinics in the U.S. as well as in countries around the world.
Most of the clinics focus their supposed treatments on orthopedic and musculoskeletal indications, while a few advertise pain relief and sports-related injuries. One British Columbia-based company markets purported stem cell treatments for a wide range of disorders including ALS, Parkinson's disease, stroke, multiple sclerosis, scleroderma, muscular dystrophy, post-myocardial infarction, and erectile dysfunction.
Mick Bhatia, director of the Cancer and Stem Cell Biology Research Institute at McMaster University, was very surprised to find out so many of the clinics were sprouting up in Canada. “Scientifically, are these stem cells? I’m very doubtful,” Bhatia said from Hamilton.
“In some cases, they aren’t using stem cells. They’re using cells that were going to die anyway in the (Petri) dish,” he said. “They inject them in and they provide a very local, and within days, an anti-inflammatory reaction ... so there’s the sense that you’re doing some benefit — and a lot of it is placebo (effect).”
This diagram shows the normal interaction of stem cells. A study made some outrageous claims on what...
This diagram shows the normal interaction of stem cells. A study made some outrageous claims on what they could do with this cycle and they were called on it.
Mike Jones via Wikimedia
A lack of scientific evidence
As Turner's paper points out, the various populations of cells in the adult human body have been the subject of controversy for the last 20 years. They were given the name, "mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs)." Tissue-specific stem cells, which have a limited ability to turn into other cell types, are usually what is found in the adult body.
In Turner's view, "wildly varying reports have helped MSCs to acquire a near-magical, all-things-to-all-people quality in the media and in the public mind — hype that has been easy to exploit. MSCs have become the go-to cell type for many unproven stem-cell interventions. The confusion must be cleared up."
“There’s this gap between the advertising claims that are being made and the current state of stem cell research,” said Turner. And this is something consumers should be aware of before they start spending thousands of dollars on unproven treatments.
Stem cells are viewed on a computer screen at the University of Connecticut`s (UConn) Stem Cell Inst...
Stem cells are viewed on a computer screen at the University of Connecticut`s (UConn) Stem Cell Institute at the UConn Health Center on August 27, 2010 in Farmington, Connecticut
Spencer Platt, Getty/AFP
The Canadian Orthopedic Association has also issued a warning on the subject. “Non-evidence based treatments and particularly therapies that involve significant cost to the patient and pose an unknown potential for harm should be strongly discouraged,” the association says in a statement on its website.
Turner goes on to stress the need for better science, while regulatory agencies and editors of influential stem-cell and general scientific journals will need to develop and enforce rigorous methodological standards. And that is only fair and right. And Turner says Health Canada needs to crack down on these clinics springing up.
A spokesman for Health Canada said the agency has engaged 21 clinics “that were identified through previous media articles and complaints to be offering various types of stem cell treatments," according to the Chronicle Herald.
“As a result of the information gathered to date, Health Canada issued compliance letters to two Canadian clinics engaged in treatments involving unauthorized imported non-autologous stem cell products,” spokesman Andre Gagnon said in an email to The Chronicle Herald. He did not identify the clinics.
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