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How are stem cells used in medicine today?


What are the risks associated with stem cell treatments?

Many stem cell treatments available around the world aren't available in the United States, primarily due to more stringent regulations in the country's healthcare field. And even some that are readily available, such as the stem cell injection that Texas Gov. Rick Perry had done to treat his bad back, aren't embraced by the medical community. Currently the FDA has only approved the use of adult stem cells for bone marrow transplants, and is suing for the authority to regulate stem cell clinics.

Perry, a staunch Republican, has consistently opposed the use of embryonic stem cells for medical research. However, he is a proponent of using adult stem cells. His treatment last summer involved the re-use of his own stem cells drawn from fatty tissue in his hip. Perry's surgeon, Houston spine specialist Stanley Jones, claims his own arthritic condition was treated successfully through stem cell treatments in Japan in 2010. Yankees pitcher Bartolo Colon made similar claims following his comeback earlier this year from debilitating shoulder and elbow injuries, which led to an investigation by Major League Baseball [source: Red].

However, many others in the medical community claim that these success stories may represent nothing more than a "placebo effect" among patients who are convinced that the treatment is responsible for their cure, without proof. Those concerned with the rush to provide quicker access to stem cell treatments say those procedures haven't been subjected to the rigorous clinical trials required to deem the procedures safe for the general public. "I would never in a million years accept for one of my family members to undergo this [type of treatment similar Perry's]," Dr. George Daley told the Associated Press.

Daley, who works at Children's Hospital Boston and the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, and is a past president of the International Society for Stem Cell Research, warned that "Perry's actions have the unfortunate potential to push desperate patients into the clinics of quacks" [source: Marchione].

Unauthorized stem cell treatment, say opponents, puts patients at risk for a number of hazardous outcomes, including infection, blood clots or even some cancers.

"Most of this stuff is pretty experimental at this point," Heather Rooke, the science director for the International Society of Stem Cell Research, told the Texas Tribune after Perry's procedure [source: Ramshaw]. "People are pushing these things into the clinic before there's real evidence of safety or an indication that they'll work."

Furthermore, most insurance policies won't cover the cost of these "experimental" procedures, which can run in the neighborhood of $10,000 to $50,000.

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