Overview of stem cell therapies

We think about the usefulness of stem cells in two ways: the here and now and the future.

In the here and now, stem cells are a powerful tool for scientists to use as they explore the underlying causes and mechanisms of injury and disease. Human embryonic stem cells can help reveal how organisms, including human beings, develop, which in turn enable scientists to better understand how the body might repair itself after injury and disease. Stem cells can also be used to screen and test drugs.

In the future, innovative stem cell therapies will likely be developed to treat disorders such as spinal cord injury and diseases like diabetes, heart disease and Parkinson's.

There are potential risks for undergoing a treatment that has not been validated and approved by an appropriate national regulatory agency.

A person who receives an unapproved treatment is unlikely to achieve functional benefits related to the treatment, while risking unknown and potential harm.

Participation in a stem cell trial or any clinical trial may prevent you from being eligible for future trials.

Be hopeful but also cautious

There is indeed a great deal of promise regarding stem cells. Between newspaper headlines and testimonials across the web, it is indeed tempting to think cures are right around the corner. But the stem cell field is still very new.

Not enough is known about how stem cells work, and moving from research to the clinic is long and complicated. Clouding the picture are high expectations for stem cells, amplified by lots of noise and demands.

There are many clinics outside the United States and outside mainstream medicine that offer, for large fees, unproven stem cell therapies. None of these clinics can back up claims of recovery with published, credible science.

Fueled by very motivated patients who seem to feel they have nothing to lose, stem cell tourism is a big business -- despite warnings from reputable scientists and numerous reports of stem cell scams and fraud.

Before you or someone you know considers such a treatment, be a responsible consumer and make an effort to understand the risks. Ask lots of questions.

Please visit a Closer Look At Stem Cells from the International Society for Stem Cell Research.

Essential questions to ask a stem cell clinic

  • Is the treatment FDA-approved, and if not, why not?
  • Will this affect whether I can get into another clinical trial?
  • What benefits can I expect?
  • How will this be measured, and how long will it take?
  • What other medications or special care might I need?
  • How is this stem cell procedure done?
  • What is the source of the stem cells?
  • How are the stem cells identified, isolated, and grown?
  • Are the cells differentiated into specialized cells before therapy?
  • How do I know if the cells are delivered to the right part of my body?
  • If the cells are not my own, how will my immune system be prevented from reacting to the transplanted cells?
  • What do the cells actually do, and is there scientific evidence that this procedure could work for my disease or condition? Where is this published?

This project was supported, in part by grant number 90PR3002, from the U.S. Administration for Community Living, Department of Health and Human Services, Washington, D.C. 20201. Grantees undertaking projects under government sponsorship are encouraged to express freely their findings and conclusions. Points of view or opinions do not, therefore, necessarily represent official Administration for Community Living policy.