Stem cell therapy is a cornerstone of regenerative medicine, and a potent complementary therapy for issues like torn tendons, MS and joint pain. Research and development is always underway, and with every new study comes new information. Stem cell research is nothing like it was 30 years ago, but, unfortunately, many of our viewpoints about it still are. But stem cells aren’t a dark, seedy, sci-fi field of medicine. They’re a holistic, state-of-the-art approach to healing.
Let’s take a look at 6 of the most common misconceptions the public, and even some medical professionals, have about stem cell research and treatment:
Myth #1: Stem cells are sourced from live embryos.
This is probably the most common and most widespread myth about stem cells. It’s based on a reaction to the fact that a small sliver of stem cells are harvested from embryos, and a misunderstanding about where those embryos come from. The embryos are either sourced from leftover IVF materials or first trimester abortions. Because abortion is such a controversial issue in the US, this is where people started to argue about the ethics of stem cell research.
The fact is that today the overwhelming majority of stem cells come from either the patient’s fat or marrow, or from umbilical cord tissue from healthy, c-section live births, voluntarily-donated by the mother. The great thing about cord-derived stem cells is that they’re new – unaged and undamaged.
Stem cells harvested from umbilical tissue are also easy to source, highly-available, and eliminate the need to take tissue from the patient. Perhaps most impressively, cord-derived stem cells carry no chance of rejection or transmission of communicable conditions.
Myth #2: Stem cell research leads to human cloning.
The facts are that with the advent of IVF in the late ‘70s, it became possible to create manmade human embryos. And some research began to focus on how to create and clone embryos that could then be ethically harvested for stem cells or introduced into a womb and brought to term.
This idea of cloning embryos became conflated with the idea of fully-cloning a human. Throw in Dolly the cloned sheep in 1997, and yet another huge controversy was brought to the field of stem cell therapy in regenerative medicine.
The truth is that there is no way for stem cell research to legally or ethically lead to human cloning. The international community saw the Pandora’s Box of ethics that cloning humans would unleash. There are strict limits in the international medicine on how and at what stage embryos may be cloned. Reproductive embryo cloning is illegal in most states.
The other thing to quell fears about stem cells and human cloning is that the science frankly isn’t there. It took scientists nearly 300 tries to make one successful sheep clone. Researchers would need a huge amount of eggs and a huge amount of surrogates. But here’s where it all stops: every failed attempt would hurt either the fetus or the surrogate. Not to mention that besides the danger and the ethics, there’s not a good reason to create more people, especially on a large enough level to fund and sustain the research required. So, simply put, this just isn’t happening.
Myth #3: Stem cell research and use is illegal in the US.
This is a hard false; stem cell research is legal in the US. As we stated, the industry does not run on embryos, so there is no reason, ethical or otherwise, for the federal government to ban stem cell research. However, it is heavily regulated.
Some states actually encourage embryonic stem cell research, like Oregon, while others totally ban it, like South Dakota. Personhood laws are the newest threat to embryonic stem cell research, again conflating the issue of abortion with the field of stem cells. Still, the National Institute of Health pours well over $1 billion into stem cell research each year, and the state of Ohio financially supports stem cell research at the Cleveland Clinic.
Once again, these are embryos, not fetuses. To assuage concerns about the legality of research on fetuses, we must remain aware that all biomedical research on fetuses is strictly limited by the federal government and only allowed on a case-by-case basis if:
(1) may enhance the well-being or meet the health needs of the fetus or enhance the probability of its survival to viability; or
(2) will pose no added risk of suffering, injury, or death to the fetus and the purpose of the research or experimentation is the development of important biomedical knowledge which cannot be obtained by other means.
Myth #4: Stem cell therapy is dangerous.
In the wide world of medical treatments, stem cell treatments are considered very safe. While any injection treatment carries with it risks, stem cell therapies don’t appear to carry more risks than any other treatment, and major complications in clinical settings where the treatment is properly applied are rare.
The most common complications with stem cell injections include:
- Stem cells fail to take to the injury
- Stem cells migrate somewhere else
- Tumor formation
- Risk of blood clots in the lungs
Other common risks that arise from poor-quality stem cells and unauthorized treatments include:
If you’re considering stem cell treatments for pain, consult with your integrative health practitioner first to discuss the safety and risks of stem cell treatment. For the vast majority of patients, especially with cord-derived stem cells, the treatment is safe.
Myth #5: There is only one kind of stem cell.
Nope. This is its own paper, really. In super-generalized terms, there are embryonic stem cells and adult stem cells. But within those two bodies, there are several other distinctions:
- Embryonic Stem Cells (ESCs): Embryonic is a bit of a misnomer, because ESCs are extracted at the blastocyst stage, before implantation, 3-5 days after fertilization. ESCs are never derived from a live women who’s pregnant. Instead, they are harvested from voluntarily-donated IVF materials and created in the lab.
- Epithelial Stem Cells: These tissue-specific stem cells are found all over the body, and they’re not interchangeable. I.e. blood stem cells don’t make skin cells. There are skin stem cells, neural stem cells, and stem cells in all your organs and tissues. They’re what regenerate, renew and heal tissues from age, wear, injury and illness.
- Hematopoietic Stem Cells: These are stem cells in the blood that red and white blood cells, as well as platelets.
- Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells (iPSCs): These are created by manipulating tissue-specific stem cells to behave like ESCs. An embryonic gene is introduced to a cell in order to revert it to a stem-cell-like state.
- Mesenchymal Stem Cells (MSCs): Also called stromal cells, these are the stem cells discovered in bone marrow that were found to be able to differentiate to create bone and cartilage cells. Scientists can now grow them from other tissues in a lab.
- VSELs: Very small embryonic like stem cells are pluripotent, dormant in your body since birth, and can be activated by exposure to a SONG-modulated laser.
Myth #6: Adult stem cells don’t work.
Pluripotent stem cells (ESCs and iPSCs) are preferred in stem cell research, as they’re thought to be more potent and more capable than adult stem cells. And while they offer some advantages in research and treatment, adult stem cells have been found effective at treating joint pain, stiffness and tendon damage. They’re found in every tissue and organ in the body – they’ve got to be good for something, right?
Still, adult stem cells do come with the age and condition of the body from which they are harvested, which is why autologous stem cell therapies aren’t the right answer for every patient. That’s another thing to discuss with your wellness practitioner when considering stem cell injections.
See? Stem cells aren’t so scary after all. In fact, they’re pretty amazing. The stigma that comes with them is based on outdated and misunderstood information. Current clinical research and preclinical R&D are too promising for us to fall prey to fear-based mythos; stem cell therapy has the potential to offer alternative, effective treatments for a variety of illnesses and injuries.