Foolhardy expectations from stem cell products

Medical Files By Rafael Castillo Philippine Daily Inquirer

I have received a couple of queries regarding capsules or drink solutions which are supposed to boost the number of stem cells in the body and these could assist in cellular renewal or rejuvenation. I understand these are being marketed locally by direct sellers who are part of multilevel networking companies.

These stem-cell-enhancing preparations come from blue-green algae sources, which as far back as I can remember, have been promoted to be a panacea for all sorts of illnesses. Apparently the claim that it can boost stem cell production or its release from the bone marrow puts a scientific basis to it, which is attuned with the times since stem cell treatment is now the exciting buzz word.

I last reviewed the scientific literature on stem cell treatment earlier this year when I was requested to give a lecture partly discussing the effects of adult stem cells on the cardiovascular system. I remember coming across some articles on the potential role of blue-green algae in enhancing stem cell production but most of these studies were done either on mice and other experimental animals or in tissue cultures in the laboratory. Theres still a long way between any positive results noted in these experiments to actual clinical benefits that can be extrapolated in humans.

Time and again we hear of and read so many clinical trials showing a negative effect of a drug in humans when all its preclinical trials in experimental animals and small trials in few healthy human volunteers showed beneficial results with no evidence of harm or toxicity.

First do no harm

In the practice of medicine, a cardinal rule is First do no harm. There is still an unresolved issue about the potential toxicity of some blue-green algae preparations. Some products have been shown to contain a significant amount of toxins which can potentially cause liver failure. I cant remember the number of cases of liver toxicity reported for which blue-green algae has been implicated.

If theres smoke, there might be fire. Unless the smoke really clears and the potential harm and toxicity by blue-green algae are ruled out, it would probably be not good advice to take it.

I have nothing against natural dietary supplements so long as theres no reason to worry about any potential harm, and the reported benefits have scientific basis. When patients show me all sorts of supplements and ask if they could take them, I usually tell them to go ahead unless theres reasonable doubt about the products safety. In fact, I take and prescribe a few tried-and-tested supplements myself.

It cant be overemphasized and I think its worth reiterating that there are still a lot of unanswered questions in stem cell science, and exploiting it for commercial reasons is doing the consumers a lot of disservice. Telling them only half of the story, insofar as the effectiveness and safety of the product is concerned, is also being quite deceptive.

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Foolhardy expectations from stem cell products

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