FDA: Stem cell treatment not approved for arthritis, chronic pain, anti-aging

KPRC2 Investigates claims made by local company

HOUSTON – Stem cells are a buzzworthy treatment with promising benefits.

Actor Michael J. Fox advocates for stem cell research, insisting a cure for Parkinson’s must be there.

Tarek El Moussa treats his back pain with stem cells.

Kim Kardashian is a big fan of stem cell facials.

It's true, stem cells serve as a repair system for the body. The breakthrough is creating demand with companies offering stem cell treatments costing thousands of dollars.

"I'm not a gambler, but what I've read, the research that I've done, this is like, this is almost the only way I'm going to get help." A woman who asked to be identified only as Joanna admitted that's what she thought when she first saw an advertisement for a seminar on stem cell benefits.

Joanna asked KPRC to not use her last name in this article.

Thinking stem cells could offer a cure to her severe osteoarthritis pain, Joanna from The Woodlands said most of her life is spent in bed.

"I was so apprehensive, yet again, very hopeful and excited," Joanna said.

She attended a seminar and paid for injections, but says they did not work.

"I think it's shameful and disgraceful that these stem cell clinics are coming up all over the United States and especially in Texas," Joanna said. "They are preying on people."

Joanna went to Premier Physical Medicine in Pearland.

The clinic said treatments are not guaranteed.

"It is a gamble as far as we cannot for sure say that something will for sure work or it won't. But what we can say is that we've treated thousands of patients and we would rather under-promise and over-deliver than the other way around. We are always going to be straightforward with people and let them know what we can expect if they follow and are compliant," said Cambrie Williams, office manager at Premier Physical Medicine.

The clinic brought several satisfied customers to the interview with KPRC to share their success stories.

"My life was on the couch. I've got my life back," Audrey Whitesides said.

"I don't have to suffer with the pain I went through before," Johnnie Whitesides said.

"If I have some spare money I'm going to do it again because I felt the improvement," Al Francis said.

"It's so much better, he's pain-free and that makes such a difference in a person's life," Jean Cozma said.

Yet medical experts locally and with the federal government are raising concerns.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a warning in September after a company called Liveyon left patients with bacterial infections during a stem cell treatment.

Click here to read the warning.

"If the products are being used for arthritis, injury-related pain, chronic joint pain, anti-aging or other health issues, they are not approved by FDA ... Some clinics may advertise stem cell clinical trials that do not have FDA approval, while some may falsely advertise that it is not necessary for FDA to review and approve stem cell therapy."

"We don't understand how to administer them, how much to administer, whether or not they're going to have side effects, whether or not they're going to have any benefit," said Houston Methodist regenerative medicine expert Dr. John Cooke, explaining why the majority of stem cell use is still under investigation.

He said there is certainly potential that stem cells can be used to aid healing.

"What we need now is more understanding about how to process these cells, how to administer these cells, which is the right dose and duration and treatment, what disorders they can be used for," Cooke explained. Right now, he said, the only FDA-approved use is for some cancers and disorders of the blood and immune system.

Cooke warns not to get stem cell injections outside of a clinical trial.

Click here for ways to participate in a clinical trial.

The four Pearland patients who went to Premier Physical Medicine said it was a risk they're glad they took.

The bottom line is stem cells are, right now, experimental. They are not likely to work for everyone.

Therefore, if a company wants money in exchange for stem cells -- a clinical trial is free -- you may spend a lot of money on the promise of better health.

Joanna spent $30,000.

"I lost all hope, I lost all trust!" she said.

Cooke encourages consumers to research stem cells through the International Society For Stem Cell Research before paying.

According to ISSCR, there are nine things you should know about stem cells:

  • Currently, very few stem cell treatments have been proven safe and effective
  • There is something to lose when you try an unproven treatment
  • Different types of stem cells serve different purposes in the body
  • The same stem cell treatment is unlikely to work for different diseases or conditions
  • The science behind a disease should match the science behind the treatment
  • Cells from your own body are not automatically safe when used in treatments
  • Patient testimonials and other marketing provided by clinics may be misleading
  • An experimental treatment offered for sale is not the same as a clinical trial
  • The process by which science becomes medicine is designed to minimize harm and maximize effectiveness