When you think of stem cell treatments, the late Gordie Howe may come to mind. In 2014, he received cells from another adult that were grown in a California lab and given to Howe in Mexico.
But hundreds of clinics around the country are now offering experimental therapies using your own stem cells. The treatments have long been delivered in places like China and Korea.
A CAUTIONARY TALE
Yes, clinics are using your own stem cells to treat a myriad of maladies. But none of this is formally approved here in the United States.
However, some patients swear by it.
"It got to the point where I couldn't walk," said Kim Stricker describing a time a year-and-a-half ago when his knees were 'bone-on-bone.'
Many people know the Howell man as the TV host for the Outdoor Channel's "Hook N' Look" show -- where he's a very active angler pulling in big bass and other fish from waters all over the country.
He also happens to be the father of Channel 7 photojournalist Danny Stricker -- who used to work with him on the show.
He said his son noticed when the pain started getting bad.
"I'd be getting up and down in the boat going, ‘Oh! Ow! Uhg! Oh!’” said Stricker.
He's had 3 arthroscopic surgeries on his knees. But his arthritis became too much.
"I started thinking I'm not going to be able to do what I do for my show. I'm not going to be able to walk my daughter down the aisle. She's getting married,” he explained.
So his osteopathic physican -- Dr. Edward Loniewski of Advanced Orthopedic Specialists in Brighton, Michigan -- recommended an experimental therapy.
He proposed extracting Stricker's own stem cells from fat tissue in his belly and then injecting the cells into his knee joints to regenerate and heal them.
Stricker decided to go for it.
SOME SWEAR BY IT
"[It’s] The ultimate in minimally invasive. There are no real incisions. It's all done with a series of injections,” said Dr. Loniewski. “It takes about 30 minutes to an hour. That's it.”
He's practiced this on 151 patients in three years.
Four patients had to go on to joint replacement.
That's only a 2-point-6-percent failure rate.
“I was encouraged,” said Dr. Loniewski.
When asked why he thought the Food and Drug Administration had not regulated these treatments, he didn’t hesitate to answer.
"First of all, it's not a drug. It's something that's found in your own body. I don't think we want the FDA to regulate your own cells,” he said.
SOME SEE RED FLAGS
But Dr. Jack Mosher of the International Society of Stem Cell Research based in Ann Arbor says patients should have a healthy skepticism.
“These interventions may not be safe," said Mosher
"The bottom line from the scientific perspective is that for many of these treatments, there's no scientific data to support that it actually works,” he added.
His organization wants more FDA regulation.
A recent report in the journal Cell Stem Cell found at least 351 companies across the U.S. are marketing unapproved stem cell interventions at 570 clinics.
- 61% - involve fat-derived stem cell interventions
- 48% - offer bone-marrow-based treatments
- Only one advertises embryonic stem cells.
Many treat orthopedic concerns, degenerative conditions, and pain management.
Some offer cosmetic procedures like buttock augmentation, facial rejuvenation, and breast enhancement.
But others even offer treatment for ALS, Alzheimer's, Autism, auto-immune diseases, COPD, Cerebral Palsy, Parkinson’s, Muscular Dystrophy, Early Dementia, Polymyositis, spinal cord injuries, diabetes, stroke, hypertension, critical limb ischemia, systemic lupus, hair restoration, erectile dysfunction and more.
“There's just no scientific support for that claim. So, that is a really big red flag waving to the potential consumer. You need to be careful,” said Dr. Mosher.
THE FUTURE OF MEDICINE?
When asked if it’s a bit like the Wild West right now in the field of stem cell treatments, Dr. Loniewski agreed.
“There are a lot of people making a lot of claims just like the medicine men used to do in the traveling shows. But we've been very careful to only offer treatments we think will be safe and effective,” Dr. Loniewski said.
He truly believes this could revolutionize medicine.
“We won't have to be so reliant on medications and braces and hospital systems and anesthetics and narcotics. This could totally change things,” he said. “And the best part about it is it's in you.”
Stricker is a believer. He has recommended the procedure to numerous people.
But he does admit he was a little nervous before the treatment – though, he’s quick to put it in perspective.
"I'm going to be frank here. No more [nervous] than I was with my vasectomy. No more than I was with LASIK surgery or having a deviated septum chiseled out," he explained.
Stem cell treatments are not covered by insurance. Patients have to pay cash out of pocket for the procedures.
Stricker’s therapy cost $7500. But he'd do it again.
Within 7 months after the procedure, he was practically speed walking.
And when our cameras caught up with him, he was showing off his flexibility and agility and assuring us his knee pain was all gone.
“When it comes to putting on your socks, look!” he said standing on one foot while lifting the other foot up to his knee and then flipping his stance to show the other side could do the same. Then he got down on both knees and stood back up quickly. Then he jumped around a bit.
“Let's see somebody with a knee replacement do this stuff! I mean seriously, let's walk up and down the stairs!” he said enthusiastically.
And, yes, he was able to walk his daughter down the aisle at her wedding.
Stricker gives a powerful testimonial.
But it does not equate to scientific study.
The FDA is holding a public hearing in September on proposed changes in regulations on cell-based therapy. Experts on both sides will be there. We'll see what happens.
If you'd like more information about the stem cell therapies offered in Michigan, here are the clinics currently marketing stem cell interventions in the state:
If you’d like to share your stem cell treatment story, please email Alicia Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org.