Unproven stem cell treatments

Unproven stem cell treatments are experimental treatments that are offered to patients before they are fully evaluated to see if they are safe and effective. Such treatments are offered outside a clinical trial framework, often by doctors who are not specialists in the condition being treated.
Although there is a great deal of attention surrounding the potential of stem cells, in reality the range of diseases for which there are current proven treatments using stem cells is quite small.

Within Australia the only proven treatments available involving haematopoietic stem cell transplants (commonly known as bone marrow or blood stem cell transplants) for the treatment of some blood, cancer and autoimmune diseases, in addition to corneal and skin grafting.

The remainder of potential treatments are still in the research phase or in clinical trials, and are yet to be proven safe and effective. 

Unproven stem cell treatments are those where doctors offer to treat patients without first properly evaluating the proposed treatment, effectively circumventing the clinical trial process.   

Unlike the careful pace of legitimate preclinical and clinical stem cell research, the doctors offering unproven stem cell treatments are effectively selling hope with little or no medical or scientific evidence to back up their claims around both safety and actual benefit.

However there are some simple points to consider which will help you to identify providers of unproven stem cell treatments:
  • when the experimental treatment being offered is not part of a registered clinical trial
  • where many different diseases or conditions are treated with the same type of stem cells
  • when patient testimonials are used to support claims of benefit with no independent verification, or published scientific papers
  • when the treatments are being advertised on the Internet or in newspaper advertisements rather than via referral from your treating doctor
  • when it is claimed that there are no risks involved in the treatment
  • when you are asked to pay for a treatment that is not yet an accepted medical practice
  •  when there is no Medicare or private insurance rebate for the treatment

For many years we and many others have been concerned about patients travelling overseas for unproven stem cell treatments. This is often referred to as ‘stem cell tourism’, where Australians travel overseas to have stem cell treatment that is not available here.

However in recent years, there has been a growing number of Australian doctors offering unproven stem cell treatments here. Please remember that just because a treatment is being offered in Australia does not make it a proven safe and effective therapy.

As with all treatments, there are risks involved. Please consult your treating doctors (who is not selling you the treatment) and discuss your options as they are in the best position to advise you.

For more information on how to understand what stem cell treatments are currently available and evaluate claims make by providers of these treatments please visit the International Society for Stem Cell Research (ISSCR) - Closer Look at Stem Cell Treatments or the Australian Stem Cell Centre Handbook.