Are stem cell therapies for spinal cord injury effective? Are they safe? The answer to both questions is a resounding “No”. None of the so-called stem cell “treatments” for people with stem cell injury in the world today have been proven safe or effective, one of the world’s foremost authorities on stem cell treatments for spinal cord injuries (SCI) warned recently.
“There are no stem cell treatments in the world today that have been fully tested in all stages of clinical trials,” says Prof. Alan Mackay-Sim, Director of Australia’s National Centre for Adult Stem Cell Research. Dr. Mackay is one of the world’s experts on stem cell treatment for SCI and the first to try olfactory ensheathing cells on people with SCI.
The stem cell scientist urged people with spinal cord injuries not to waste their money on any of the so-called treatments being conducted in several countries, including China, Russia, Brazil and India.
“Such treatments are not based on scientifically proven evidence that stem cells make a difference, partially or wholly, which means risks and benefits remain unproven,” the professor said in an interview with S. Vaidya Nathan published on Jan. 11 in the online Indian news site, The Hindu.
Nathan, a founding member of Spinal Care India — A Vibrant Life, conducted the interview in December 2011, during the professor’s visit to the Mary Verghese Institute of Rehabilitation attached to Christian Medical College (CMC), Vellore, India.
“Clinics offering ‘stem cell therapies’ do not state what cells they are transplanting, do not provide evidence of how the cells work in animals and whether they work in humans,” he noted.
Mackay-Sim also warned people not to believe the testimonials advertising the effectiveness of so-called stem cell treatments for SCI. “There is no concrete evidence that it is stem cell treatment that leads to improvement of any sort in a person with SCI,” he pointed out.
As illnesses and injuries can change with time and that a few improve without treatment, statements and testimonials from patients placed on websites or in newspapers do not comprise “evidence” he said.
“Persons with SCI must not go in for treatment using stem cell or olfactory ensheathing cells in any part of the world, as there is a long way to go to have a scientifically proven approach that also works,” he also said.
Instead of spending vast sums of money on these so-called treatments in the hope of improvement, Mackay-Sim said patients would be better off spending the money on improving their quality of life in other ways.
Successful animal studies
But SCI patients can take heart from the fact that while research on stem cell treatments for the condition are still in the early stages, animal studies have been successful.
Scientists are currently at stage where treatments have been done on animals, using bone marrow stem cells, neural stem cells and embryonic stem cells.
So far, animal studies have been successful, he said. “Cell transplantations have restored nerve connections between the brain and the lower spinal cord and improved walking, breathing and other functions in paraplegic rats.”
But this is still the “very early stages” of research into stem cells treatments for SCI, the expert said. “Results have been encouraging, but from here to using them in human beings is a long step away,” he added.
Olfactory ensheathing cells
Stem cells are only one of the treatments being explored, Mackay-Sim noted. Research into the possibility of repairing a damaged spinal cord is taking place in several countries, exploring certain drugs—as well as different cell types including the olfactory ensheathing cells that the professor is an expert on.