Exaggerated claims of cures threaten stem cell research

BMJ 2005; 330 doi: (Published 02 June 2005) Cite this as: BMJ 2005;330:1285
  1. Kaye McIntosh
  1. London

    Exaggerated claims for stem cell therapy are threatening a promising field of research, leading doctors in the area said this week. One company in the United States is advertising the treatment as a cure for depression and ulcerative colitis, a public debate in London heard last week.

    Robin Lovell-Badge, head of the division of developmental genetics at the National Institute for Medical Research at the Medical Research Council, told the meeting, organised by the Facial Surgery Research Foundation, “It is making claims that are totally beyond what is possible.” Neil Scolding, professor of clinical neurosciences at Bristol University said, “When we hear claims about tearing up the medical textbooks, we should treat them with suspicion.”

    Professor Scolding warned that embryonic stem cell therapy carried a small risk of creating tumours in patients as well as of raising huge ethical issues about the destruction of human embryos. But adult stem cell therapy offered a “very exciting prospect” of treatments in neurological and degenerative conditions and even heart disease. Clinical trials involving more than 100 patients showed clear benefits for the use of adult stem cells from bone marrow in myocardial infarction, he told the conference.

    But Peter Braude, head of the department of women's health, King's College, London, told the debate that the stem cell lines his department was creating for the study of genetic disease would not be possible without using embryonic stem cells. These were the byproducts of preimplantation genetic diagnosis that would otherwise have been discarded, he said.

    Ian Mackenzie, of the Institute of Cell and Molecular Science at Barts and The London, said, “Many of the concepts about cancer stem cell behaviour have come from studies of normal stem cells and from research with embryonic and adult stem cells—so research with both kinds of stem cells is required.” Stem cell research was vital for effective cancer therapy, he added: “If you eliminate the stem cells properly, the tumour will go away.”

    Ann McLaren, professor at the Wellcome Trust/Cancer Research UK Gurdon Institute of Cancer and Developmental Biology at Cambridge University, warned that using adult stem cell treatments before safety was proved carried “risks of infection, and failure, and disasters that could hold back the whole promising field of adult stem cell research for years.”

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