Respectful Insolence

It’s time for a change of pace on Your Friday Dose of Woo.

I’m getting the feeling that you my readers may have gotten tired of the theme I’ve been doing the last three weeks. I can relate somewhat but I think it served a purpose (other than giving me free rein to indulge in a lot of bathroom humor, that is). First, I subjected you to a rather disgusting foray into the bowels (if you’ll excuse the term) of colon cleansing, complete with links to some truly disgusting websites where people not only enthusiastically discuss their poop, but take pictures and post them on the web. Next, I moved on to “liver cleanses,” complete with somewhat less disgusting pictures but with a fine lesson about how it is probably the liver flushes themselves that cause the various “stones” that come out in the feces. Finally, I discussed the altie obsession with “cleansing” toxins out of the blood, primarily using chelation, but also by other means. Of course, I’ve blogged extensively about chelation therapy before, both here and in my old blog, mainly because of its role in autism quackery and the death of a five year old boy. I thought about continuing the theme (after all, there’s still the lymphatic system to be cleansed, but decided against it.

That’s because there’s one form of woo that’s perhaps more annoying and more seductive than any other form, and that’s woo that masquerades as actual science. And what promising scientific breakthrough seems to promise the most new therapies and new cures for a variety of human diseases? I think you know the answer. Certainly Shelley does.

Yes, I’m talking about stem cell therapy. There’s definitely no woo like stem cell woo.

And, as the article referenced in Retrospectacle points out, stem cell woo has become big business in other countries with–shall we say?–more lax attitudes towards medical research and whether the therapies they are using actually do what is claimed for them, coupled with an equally lax attitude towards abortion, countries like Russia, the Dominican Republic, and Barbados. One of the favorite topics of altie woo happens to be “regeneration” and “antiaging.” Yes, it’s not just the woos who are looking to cheat time, but they come up with such bizarre “antiaging” therapies to do it. It should not be surprising that in many dubious clinics stem cells have devolved from promising science into woo. They’re in the news. They’re controversial. They’re a hot area of research, with several states, including California and New Jersey, vying to become national or even world centers for research and South Korea making a name for itself as a stem cell-friendly venue for biotech. In theory at least, stem cells do have great potential to treat a variety of diseases, such as Parkinson’s disease, cancer, and a wide variety of degenerative diseases. In the more far-out scenarios, if the totipotential nature of embryonic stem cells can be mastered, they could even be used to generate replacement organs for use in organ failure without the need for transplant and the attendant risk of rejection and need for lifelong immunosuppressive therapy. And, yes, perhaps they may even have utility in letting us indulge our vanity and ward off the effects of aging. Given this hype and the known potential regenerative potential of stem cells, it’s not surprising that stem cells have rapidly found a happy and prominent place in the armamentarium of antiaging woo, regardless of the fact that, for most applications, there is no evidence that stem cells do what they claim and no assurance that what is being injected is even really composed of actual stem cells. That is the woo, as are the claims for near miraculous results by dubious clinics offering what they claim to be stem cell therapy.

But, Orac, you say. Isn’t woo usually composed of magical thinking base on no evidence? Didn’t you yourself even say so? Well, yes, I did. The fact that someday stem cells may provide treatments for diseases for which we currrently don’t have particularly good treatments does not mean that their use by these dubious clinics today does not come constitute woo. If you don’t believe me, get a load of this magical thinking:

Although she is just 32, with skin like eggshell and a waterfall of ice-blond hair, Antonina Babosiuk recently found herself noticing certain changes: a roughening of the skin on her face, for instance, and a waning of her ability to shake off jet lag. As vice president of an international jewelry company, Babosiuk follows a brisk schedule, logging regular flights to Hong Kong to buy pearls and to Kyrgyzstan, where she inspects rings and bracelets produced at the company’s 400-person factory. Fearing that the long days were taking their toll on her appearance, Babosiuk secured an appointment at Beauty Plaza, a high-end Moscow spa, where she received an injection of stem cells that had been extracted from her own fat and multiplied in a petri dish. The treatment, which cost her roughly $20,000, has become increasingly popular among wealthy Muscovites as a kind of cure-all – one with a reputation for boosting energy and generally restoring the youthful vibrance lost with age. There have also been scattered reports of remarkable effects, from a superhuman ability to go without sleep to white hair that abruptly returns to its original black.

Woo.

Babosiuk experienced nothing so dramatic, but one or two months after her visit to Beauty Plaza, she noticed that her hair was more lustrous and that her skin had become softer. “It looks more fresh,” she explains. She was so satisfied that she persuaded her husband, a 42-year-old Russian businessman, to have the injections as well. “Stem cells are like vitamins,” Babosiuk says cheerfully. “That’s why I come in here. If I don’t make something for my health, I will look 40 tomorrow.”

Although the benefits of Beauty Plaza’s injections are still hearsay, the idea that stem cells could serve as a wonder drug for aging faces is spreading, driven by a combination of new research and a growing demand for nonsurgical alternatives to the traditional face-lift.

Can you say confirmation bias? Sure, I knew you could. Of course the “benefits” of Beauty Plaza are hearsay, probably because they are nonexistent. And paying $20,000 a pop for these injections is strong motivation to look for any sign that reinforces one’s belief that the treatment is working. After all, one wouldn’t want to be forced to admit one is paying so much money for a worthless treatment that probably doesn’t even contain any actual adult stem cells, would one? (I’m also sure that her “fresher” skin and “more lustrous” hair have nothing at all to do with any of the other beauty treatments she is no doubt getting from the Beauty Plaza.) Besides, stem cells are not easy to isolate, purify, and expand. To successfully cultivate them requires a great deal of expertise, and these cells are easily contaminated with fibroblasts, immune cells, and other non-stem cells. I know, as I’ve been looking into cultivating endothelial progenitor cells (a type of vascular stem cell) as part of my research.

Still don’t believe this is woo? Well, then, check out this quote from another of these dubious clinics, the Institute of Regenerative Medicine:

“We inject the cells taken from the liver tissue of human foetuses directly into the vein in the back of your hand,” explains the well-spoken English consultant Jenny, who gives telephone consultations to potential patients.

“The results are incredible. You’ll feel and look different after a month because these cells help the body to regenerate itself. The effects last for approximately a year before it needs to be “topped up.”

Despite criticism from Church leaders and religious groups on the Island, Barnett Suskind, chief executive of IRM, is unapologetic about the treatment he carries out. ‘It is the most natural form of healing there is – in ten years, everyone will be doing this,’ he says. ‘You think better, sleep better, and look better. Your quality of life improves and your libido certainly improves.’

Ah, yes, “natural” healing. Let’s see. IRM takes livers out of human fetuses, probably trypsinizes them to dissolve the connective tissue and leave just the cells, does all sorts of manipulations on them in order to isolate the stem cells, grows the cells until you have enough, and then injects this concoction into its clients’ veins. Apparently Mr. Suskind has a different definition of “natural” than I do. And, of course, it allegedly helps the libido.

Of course, although using stem cells as a sophisticated beauty aid or “surgery-less” plastic surgery seems to be among the most common of the woo uses of stem cells, that’s not all they claim. Look at the list of diseases, for example, claimed by another one of the clinics listed in the article, the Medra Clinic:

The fetal stem cell searches out, detects and then attempts to repair any damage or deficit discovered, as well as releases growth factors, which stimulate the body’s own repair mechanisms. . . .

A partial list of diseases includes:

Alzheimer’s, Anemia, Autism, Brain damage, Cancer, Cerebral Palsy, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Depression, Diabetes, Diverticulitis, Epilepsy, Impotence, Immune Suppression, Leukemia, Multiple Sclerosis, Parkinson’s, Rheumatoid Arthritis, Sickle Cell Anemia, Spinal Cord Injury, Stroke, Systemic Lupus Erythematosus and Ulcerative Colitis. . . .

Rarely has a single treatment modality offered so much promise to those suffering from some of mankind’s worst afflictions.

Another successful use of Fetal Stem Cells is in the field of anti-aging (rejuvenation/longevity.)

A large number of patients have been treated with Fetal Stem Cell Therapy, with by current standards, remarkable physical and psychological improvements.

Gee, sound familiar? I’ve presented a similar list for chelation therapy, and you can see similar pitches on a number of altie websites. Of course, if you peruse some of these sites, it becomes clear that, to these stem cell purveyors, stem cell therapy is nothing more than the latest in a long line of Fountains of Youth promising to turn back the clock and eliminate all the diseases of aging. As I mentioned before, stem cells do indeed have the potential to treat quite a few diseases and potentially even regenerate some organs, but little of this potential has yet been realized, and it could take years, if not decades, to determine what stem cells can and cannot do. At present, stem cells are only routinely outside the auspices of a clinical trial in bone marrow transplantation to treat hematopoietic malignancies. However, there have been reports of possible utility in spinal cord injury (in mice and a couple of human reports), repairing heart muscle damaged by heart attacks (mice and humans), but wide applicability is probably a fairly long way off and potential complications are at this time mostly unknown. For one thing, stem cells tend to aggregate around sites of injury, making it impossible (at least now) to control where intravenous injections of such cells end up:

“An intravenous injection of cells – euch,” says Evan Snyder, the director of the Stem Cells and Regeneration Program at the Burnham Institute in La Jolla, Calif. One problem, Snyder notes, is that you can’t control where cells go once you put them in the bloodstream. Given the propensity of stem cells to aggregate around a site of injury, moreover, there’s no reason the injected cells couldn’t all end up migrating to a cut on your finger. At $35,000 a shot, that would amount to an extraordinarily expensive Band-Aid.

Worse, these cells could result in tumors:

Among others, Dr. Amit Patel, of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, worries about darker possibilities. Because there’s no way to control where the stem cells go once they’re injected, they may end up causing more problems than they cure. Mice bred to have stomach ulcers, for instance, were shown to have a higher incidence of cancer formation at the site of the sores, because stem cells aggregate at those lesions. Adding more stem cells might increase that risk. Likewise, Patel points out, a patient could have a small, undetected tumor growing in the liver or a lung, in which case the injection of stem cells might actually accelerate the cancer.

“Even when I do direct injections to the heart, the majority of the cells don’t stay there,” Patel says. “Once the cells are in your bloodstream, who knows where they’re going to land.”

Indeed, one Russian tycoon, after receiving a fetal stem cell injection at the Beauty Plaza in Moscow, developed pea-sized tumors all over his face and legs, and one shouldn’t forget that cancer stem cells represent a hot area of research right now as both a major mechanism behind the pathogenesis of cancer and as potential targets for therapy. All of the above shows is that you have sound science, which is the careful testing and weighing the risks against the potential benefits, and then you have the hype, which makes pie-in-the-sky claims for its therapy with no concern for for the risks. Even if some of the claims turn out to be partially true, as of today we can’t say that they are true.

Of course, some of you may still not be convinced that stem cell therapy in the hands of dubious clinic operators has reached the level of woo. Perhaps this next example will convince you. This example could only come from the U.S., where there are such strict restrictions on stem cell research and therapies that human stem cell woo would be very difficult, if not impossible, to pull off (the main reason so many of these clinics are in nations with more lax regulations). I bring you The Frozen in Time™ Stem Cell Facial:

The latest beauty treatment to hit Manhattan’s spa scene has, according to the owner, already drawn a host of customers from the UK and Europe as well as wealthy New Yorkers. The facial involves an exfoliation and steam. The face is then covered in a moisturiser composed of cells harvested from the embryonic fluid of pregnant cows. The result according to Nabi’s owner Ivy Cho is ‘ biological supremacy over ageing skin’.

The spa claims that introducing live stem cells from cows helps your skin cells – which may be damaged by ‘ environmental factors’ – restore and replicate themselves, creating healthier, stronger, more youthful-looking skin.

‘The treatment is originally from France and has become popular with premium customers,’ says a consultant at the spa who claims the cows are not hurt in any way during the process.

‘We pat the liquid onto the face rather than rubbing it in, which breaks up the cells. It takes just an hour, but immediately afterwards your skin will feel hydrated, firmer and tighter, with a flawless glow. After six days your skin becomes radiant.’

And straight from the company’s website:

By introducing live stem cells that are genetically flawless to the human skin, our dry, mature, older cells begin to restore themselves and replicate generations of healthier, stronger, more youthful looking skin. This clinically proven, FDA approved treatment grows new skin and renews skin that is compromised through environmental factors, sun damage, stress, etc. It is also ideal for sunburns, post-laser, post chemical peels, and post surgery to regenerate healthy looking skin.

All this for just $250. What a bargain. I’ll have to remember to check it out the next time I’m in Manhattan, as I’ve always wanted to have cells derived from cow amnionic fluid spread on my face. I’m just not so sure about the FDA-approved part. Did the FDA really approve a treatment involving slathering bovine “stem cells” on people’s faces?How do we know that these are stem cells? Will the company provide the antigenic profile that demonstrates that they are, in fact, stem cells? How do we even know the cells are still alive, particularly since they’ve apparently been frozen, a process that, if not properly done with appropriate cryopreservants, will kill the cells? Come to think of it, if the FDA really did approve this spa’s formula, that’s a pretty good indication to me that, whatever else may be in the concoction, it’s almost certainly not living stem cells. As Dr. Richard Granstein, Chair of dermatology at New York Presbyterian/Weill Cornell, put it:

“These cells are dead. They come from a cow. And you’re rubbing them onto the surface of the skin, where they could never seep in,” says Granstein. “It’s just not going to happen.”

Of course, woos don’t inquire too fast. Personally, in this particular case, I’m torn between decrying the utter (and amusingly laughable) ludicrous woo of this treatment and enjoying sitting back and watching affluent and gullible New Yorkers (and those who can afford to travel to New York for the treatment) waste their money in homage to P.T. Barnum’s famous dictum, all to slather pumices derived from frozen cells harvested from the nether regions of cows. Either way, though, the magical thinking that leads to anyone believing that dead “stem cells” from cow amniotic fluid can do anything other than make a rather disgusting facial cream when applied to the face definitely constitutes woo.

As Shelley asks, “With frauds in Korea, cosmetic clinics in the Caribbean, and vetoes at home, does stem cell therapy (legitimate, medically-necessary therapy) ever stand a chance???”

I certainly hope so.

Comments

  1. #1 Blake Stacey
    August 11, 2006

    Farnsworth: Uh, ma’am, it has become too much of a chore for me to clean out my wrinkles each day. Is it true that stem cells may fight the aging process?

    Geneworks Woman: Well, yes. In the same way an infant may fight Muhammad Ali. But–

    Farnsworth: One pound of stem cells, please.

    [He slaps his $300 on the desk and the woman gives him a tub of stem cell cream.]

    Geneworks Woman: Of course, any age-reversing effects will be purely temporary.

    [She gags and turns away as Farnsworth spreads the cream around his face.]

    From Futurama, “Three Hundred Big Boys” (episode 416)

  2. #2 M
    August 11, 2006

    I was watching a documentary about vets last night, and they were using experimental stem cell therapy on a racehorse, for torn ligaments. They were at least reasonably honest, that they didn’t know if it was going to work, so they were going to give the horse the best standard ligament-injury therapy as well.

  3. #3 Abel Pharmboy
    August 11, 2006

    Slightly off-topic but certainly speaks to those who think that the alt med contingent is a bunch of free-lovin’, tree-huggin’ hippies (like me).

    No, instead, it is a carefully crafted industry designed to separate you from your money with tactics so aggressive that they make big pharma look like altar boys.

    Cleaning out my office this morn and came across an old alt med/nutrition retailers conference announcement emblazoned with the slogan:

    “Discover the products your customers don’t even know they want – yet.”

    Q.E.D.

  4. #4 Shelley Batts
    August 11, 2006

    Great assessment! You and I both hate the woo, but some woo is more dangerous than other woo. Ear candles and the like are rather harmless in the long run, but this has the potential to damage the reputation of an entire (and very promising) therapeutic field. Thanks for posting.

  5. #5 frontinus
    August 11, 2006

    IIRC, in the 20s and 30s there was a quack who made a fortune by transplanting the testicles of goats into gulible men to restore their “youthful vigor”.

    For some unfathomable reason this post reminded me of that.

    BTW, did you know that if you adjust for the changes in US population and birth rate since 1870 (the time of the Cardiff Giant double-hoax) it turns out that there are now slightly more than 2.4 suckers born every minute?

  6. #6 Sid Schwab
    August 11, 2006

    What great marketing! Take the latest thing in the news, and give it to the gullible. (And wealthy). I’m working on “Tax-cut body lotion.” Maybe “Fight wrinkles over there so you don’t have to fight them here serum.”

  7. #7 Clark Bartram
    August 11, 2006

    Damn, somebody beat me to the Futurama scene.

  8. #8 Ruth
    August 11, 2006

    To prevent wrinkles, stop eating organic food and eat junk food with preservatives! If Twinkies can sit on a shelf for years without spoilage, BHT should help preserve your skin too!

    I’ve heard of parents taking autistic kids to Mexico to receive stem cell treatments to cure them. How likely is it that they had real stem cell cultures and not just saline? At least real stem cells might form new neurons, which is more than chelation can do.

  9. #9 Brent McKee
    August 11, 2006

    Goat glands, rhinoceros horn, bear gall bladders, stem cells – never underestimate the human desire to retain ones youth and (particularly) ones sexual prowess. It’s the sort of thing that just sells itself.

  10. #10 R
    August 11, 2006

    I seem to recall about ~25 or so, there was a clinic/spa in Switzerland that had an anti-wrinkle treatment based on cells from sheep placentas.

    It’s always something.

  11. #11 nephSpouse
    August 11, 2006

    I’m torn between decrying the utter (and amusingly laughable) ludicrous woo

    LOL! WOOO, Utter? Udder?!!!! you pun sir and you dont even realize it…

    The formula for successful woo is easy. If Medicine or government forbids it or hasn’t quite sorted it out yet, sell the herbal version or move overseas and make gullible wealthy people come to you, if Medicine or government recommends it then sell your services to filter it, chelate it or flush it out of the person. Have no fear about changing from augmenting to filtering half way though your application if new studies are quoted on CNN. If all else fails sell your book on how your double secret treatment for all illness and lack of vigor was suppressed by the military-pharmacy complex.

    By the way Orac, I wont call you my blog grandfather, but perhaps you’re the blog godfather :D As the husband of a Nephrologist I’ve decided I have some stories to dredge up. If nothing else to answer some of the silly questions that my own family asks me.

    By far the funniest scene to me in a futurama episode that I can recall was when Fry was walking into a gym and the camera panned over a lady just sitting on a bench next to a rack of weights as you’d expect to be connected to some kind of thing for her to pull on. Then she furrows her brows and the weights go up and back down again. As the camera continues to pan past her you see the label on the machine, “kegelsizer”

  12. #12 Diora
    August 11, 2006

    Cosmetics companies have been claiming their skin creams will make you look younger for years. Do a google on “anti-ageing” and you’ll find a zillion hits. The only thing that changes is the next miracle ingredient. The only difference between all those creams that claim to be “better than botox” or creams that claim to even reduce sagging and this one is the “stem cells” label.
    One woman even
    sued them for false claims
    :
    Debra Scheufler, from San Diego, California, claims that the products that she spent an estimated $1,000 did not reverse or even halt visible signs of ageing on her face, a number of US newspaper reports have said.

  13. #13 Alison
    August 12, 2006

    Thanks to the Friday Dose of Woo, I was able to successfully counter-argue someone who was spouting some nonsense about the benefits of a no-carb diet, and how good ketosis really is for you, simply by pointing out that each informative site he linked to was selling no-carb diet books and supplements. Before, I would not have even realized what an effective tool “this site is selling something, you moron” could be!

  14. #14 Thursday
    August 12, 2006

    Aaaaand WELCOME, Stem Cells, to the wonderful world of Sort-Of Science!

    As you’ve no doubt already noticed, Quantum has already been into the punch bowl…

  15. #15 Luxie P.
    August 21, 2006

    Just out of curiousity, do you have thoughts on the HGH injections people get, claiming it makes them look/feel younger? Is this along the same lines of quack as the stem cell application?

  16. #16 geetha
    March 26, 2008

    Wondering what woo stem cell therapy is going to create in india. as if there isn’t enough already :(