My curiosity was sparked when I read that a stem cell centre was opening in Kamloops (Kamloops This Week, March 21, 2017).
So I went to the location of the centre at 470 Columbia St only to find a parking lot. Thinking that the address might be wrong, I searched the directory of the medical building next door and found that no stem cell centre was listed.
The Stem Cell Centers website lists Kamloops as the only one in Canada. Dr. Richard Brownlee is named as the surgeon with “more information coming soon.”
“Stem cell therapy,” says the website, “can help with orthopedic or pain management, ophthalmological conditions, cardiac or pulmonary conditions, neurological conditions, and auto-immune diseases, among many other conditions and disease that results in damaged tissue.”
One of the ophthalmological conditions they treat is macular degeneration. “If your vision is fading due to macular degeneration, you know it’s time to seek help. Our non-invasive Stem Cell Therapy treatment might be the solution for you.”
I wanted get Dr. Brownlee’s reaction to news that an unproven stem cell treatment had resulted in blindness according to the New England Journal of Medicine as reported in the Globe and Mail, March 20, 2017.
”This week, the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) reported on three individuals who went blind after receiving an unproven stem cell treatment at a Florida clinic. The patients paid thousands of dollars for what they thought was a clinical trial on the use of stem cells to treat macular degeneration.”
The writer of the Globe and Mail article, Timothy Caulfield, Research Chair of the in Health Law and Policy at the University of Alberta, doesn’t name the Florida clinic.
The Stem Cell Centers website refers optimistically to treatment for macular degeneration at a Florida clinic, although apparently not theirs since no Florida clinic appears on their list. It tells of how Doug Oliver suffered from macular degeneration before stem cells were extracted from his hip bone and injected them into his eyes. Almost immediately, Oliver’s eyesight started to improve. “I began weeping,” he said.
Caulfield encourages caution. “Health science gets a lot of attention in the popular press. People love hearing about breakthroughs, paradigm shifts and emerging cures. The problem is, these stories are almost always misleading.” “It can also help to legitimize the marketing of unproven therapies.”
Reports from the Stem Cell Centers’ own website are cautionary as well. It quotes an abstract from a study done by the Southern California College of Optometry on how “stem cells might ultimately be used to restore the entire visual pathway.”
The promise of stem cell research is phenomenal. Scientific American (Jan., 2017) reports that brains can be grown in a lab dish from stem cells taken from skin. These samples can be used to research brain disorders ranging from schizophrenia to Alzheimer’s disease, and to explore why only some babies develop brain-shrinking microcephaly after exposure to the Zika virus.
However, Dr. George Daley, dean of Harvard Medical School, concludes that there are only a handful of clinical applications available and they are for skin and blood-related ailments.
Practice, it seems, has not yet matched the promise of stem cell research.