09/24/2012 03:02 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Considering a Stem Cell Treatment From a Clinic? Have a Listen

"Stem cells" is a buzz phrase being used a lot these days. It's an exciting field of research, and I'm fortunate to be a part of it. I think it will transform medicine over the next two decades, but unfortunately today the phrase "stem cells" is being used right now by folks who simply want your money.

The number of clinics offering for-profit, point-of-care stem cell treatments is rapidly increasing even as the FDA, which keeps an eye on them, has unfortunately had a static budget for years now.

Roughly in parallel, the number of patients and parents of patients contacting me has shot up.

Their question above all else is the following:

Should I or a loved one, usually a child, get a stem cell treatment?

Most often these folks are in a difficult situation. Either they or their loved one has pretty much exhausted all that today's conventional medicine has to offer, but they are still suffering. Understandably, they are exploring other options, including stem cell treatments, which do sound exciting.

When I say "stem cell transplant" here, I'm not referring to something like bone marrow transplants offered by doctors at universities or hospitals, treatments for blood cancers that have been around for decades. Instead, I mean sketchier offerings that are called "stem cell treatments" but are not FDA approved. Usually the folks selling these treatments are in fact trying to avoid the FDA's attention. The treatment is offered at a clinic that makes claims not supported by published science. I call these "dubious" clinics offering "dubious" stem cell treatments. They can cost $10,000-$20,000 a pop or higher.

These treatments often are marketed with claims that seem too good to be true. For example, while thousands of doctors around the world have no treatment for autism, miraculously some clinic in a strip mall in Latin America or Los Angeles offers one that works 90 percent of the time?


You name the incurable, untreatable disease, and these clinics claim that stem cells can cure them.

If so, you might wonder, why aren't these treatments offered by large hospitals, particularly research hospitals in the U.S.? Typically the clinic's answer to this is that there is a horrible plot by Big Pharma and the FDA to kill stem cell treatments. It's not true.

I tell patients to be very cautious, and I advise against these clinics. There are risks to these kinds of treatments, including cancer, and usually there is zero evidence they work.

Yes, I know celebrities are getting stem cell treatments for cosmetic reasons, and sports stars are getting them, and even politicians like Rick Perry. However, don't let celebrities guide your medical decisions. They are no smarter and no wiser than you.

These clinics also heavily use patient testimonials to sell their treatments to you, but I'd view such testimonials cautiously. As much as I think the world of the patients I've met and had contact with and as much as I myself was a cancer patient, testimonials are no substitute for rigorous medical science.

I recommend educating yourself further.

For more information, check out my patient's guide to stem cell treatments as well as my easy-to-use clinical trial finder for stem cell trials.

I'm a stem cell researcher and cancer survivor who has no monetary interest in the success or failure of any stem cell clinic. I just want to help educate and empower patients to help them make the best decisions for themselves in consultation with their own doctors.

For more by Paul Knoepfler, click here.

For more on stem cells, click here.