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Turning stem cells into snake oil Add to ...

“Patients will say, ‘If they can grow stem cells this quickly to fix my dog, if they can be bottled in a cream, why can't you use it to fix my heart?’ ”

Science has a long history of being hijacked by hucksters. Bogus genetic tests abound, as do suspect colon cleanses and oils to grow your telomeres. Right back to the days of bloodletting, storefront barbers would slice for a price as a supposed cure for everything from gout to acne.

But stem cells are big business. Treatments can run from a few thousand dollars to more than $40,000, according to Tim Caulfield, a lawyer and bioethicist at the University of Edmonton who has written many papers on the subject.

Thousands of people a year – whether desperate patients with chronic diseases or healthy ones in search of a nip or tuck – pay the price.

“The conditions are perfect for quackery,” Prof. Caulfield says. “The phrase ‘stem cells' is synonymous with ‘cutting edge.' From a scientific perspective, it's a very loaded term. And for marketing it's a very exciting term.”

And the market is booming. With the spread of patient activism, the growing mistrust of the medical establishment and the flood of information on the Web, patients can shop the world's clinics not only for faster or cheaper treatments, but for those unproven by mainstream science.

Hair like Superman's, in a single bound

All Terry Lidstone knew about stem cells before he agreed to have his own injected into his head was that they seemed like a powerful, complicated piece of the future. But, as he tells me by phone from his home in St. John's, all he really cared about at the time was his hair.

Mr. Lidstone had loved his hair – thick and blond, “it was beautiful.” Losing it at the age of 35 was the worst thing that ever happened to him.

“I was totally destroyed by it,” says the self-described millionaire, now 52. “My wife will tell you: I would get pissed off every morning. … I stood on my head for years to get the blood going to my scalp.”

Worse, as the prominent owner of a string of Newfoundland gas stations with 90 employees, he was regularly in the public eye. He considered a hair transplant, but had an aversion to hospitals. Only wintering in Florida finally changed his mind.

“Tampa is the capital for cosmetics,” he says. “Sunshine, everyone looking good, in bathing suits all the time. … Florida pushed me over the edge.”

That's when he found John Satino, owner of the Hair and Scalp Laser Clinic in Clearwater, Fla. The online information impressed him, as did meeting Mr. Satino – “he's charismatic.” He also liked the doctored pictures on the clinic wall of a bald Bill Clinton, Elvis Presley and Superman – which “showed you the difference hair makes.”

Mr. Lidstone had signed up for a standard hair transplant when Mr. Satino told him he was also trying something new with stem cells: He could use the ones in Mr. Lidstone's own blood to enhance the transplanted follicles on his crown and to encourage new growth. Mr. Lidstone decided to pay the extra $1,500.

“[Mr. Satino]told me there were no guarantees,” he says. “He told me, ‘You'd be the first Canadian to have it done.’ ”

Who is keeping watch?

Many companies say they can use a patient's own stem cells in the treatments they market. Adult stem cells, however – extracted from blood, fat, bone marrow or other body parts – do not have the same shelf life or versatility as those from an embryo, which can renew infinitely and grow into all of the body's tissue types.

Anti-abortion opponents of embryonic stem-cell research have helped the world's hucksters by spreading misinformation, says Sean Morrison, director of the International Society of Stem Cell Research (ISSCR).

“Both president [George W.]Bush and the Catholic Church have all said, ‘Oh, why use human embryonic stem cells, when there are plenty of stem cells in umbilical cords?' – implying that all stem cells have equal powers to regenerate.”

Mr. Sipp of the RIKEN institute, a member of the ISSCR, adds that clinics often use various agents to manipulate a patient's stem cells to grow into the tissue they want – “and the risk increases that their chromosomes will become unstable.”

Dr. Morrison, who also heads stem-cell research at the University of Michigan, says that even in cosmetics, where plastic surgeons have long transferred fats and tissues from one body site to another, unproven stem-cell procedures pose a potential danger.

In December, reports surfaced that two patients had died after receiving "anti-aging" stem-cell infusions through a South Korean biopharmaceutical company.

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