Debunking the Myths of Stem Cell Therapy

Text by: Mina Loyola


During one of the most high-profile impeachment proceedings in Philippine history, then-Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile impressed millions of TV viewers and case followers by exhibiting extraordinary sharpness of mind and spotless memory, both uncommon for men his age. His secret? He has since revealed in a public forum that he has undergone stem cell treatment.

Stem cell treatment has been a controversial topic in medicine, given the ethical and practical issues hounding the procedure. Locally, it has been gaining ground, thanks to public figures who openly admit to subscribing to this therapy. With the treatment mainly backed by ‘endorsements,’ most Filipinos are in the dark of what stem cell treatment really is, and what it can really do to one’s health.

MYTH: The only available source of stem cells is an embryo or a developing fetus.

FACT: Stem cells are basic biological cells that can develop into different cell types, like skin, bone, blood, or muscle cells.

Science tells us that there are two main types of stem cells based on their source: (1) embryonic stem cells found in the inner cell mass of early mammal life stage, and (2) adult stem cells which come from adult tissues.

Harvesting embryonic stem cells, however, stops the progress of a fertilized egg into a full human being. As methods like in vitro fertilization – wherein extra fertilized eggs can be used for research after one has been implanted into the mother – and discretionary abortion is not legal in all countries, ethical concerns arise in relation to stem cell treatment.

Stem cells are undifferentiated; hence, many believe that they can only be sourced from a developing fetus. However, there are also adult stem cells present in the bodies of children and even adults—their main task is to activate and regenerate once damage is detected in the tissue in which they are located.

At present, researchers are looking at other effective sources of stem cells: umbilical cord blood and amniotic fluid.

MYTH: Stem cell treatment is a medical procedure to combat aging.

FACT: Famous patients of stem cell therapy have demonstrated slower aging and stronger mental faculties, due to the stem cells’ ability to replace damaged cells. Generally, the treatment has long been proven to be beneficial in treating blood cancers and primary immune deficiencies.

In a signed position statement by groups of medical practitioners led by the Philippine College of Physicians, they argued that stem cell therapy has addressed only a few medical conditions: “cancers of the blood and bone marrow, and some primary immune-deficiencies treated by autologous or allogenic stem cell transplants.”

According to the statement, the use of stem cell treatment in regenerative medicine, specifically in aging and aesthetics, is “yet to be proven.”

Nevertheless, affluent Filipinos, swear stem cell therapy is a veritable fountain of youth; in this case, the Department of Health (DOH) has accredited hospitals, health facilities, and practitioners that can run stem cell treatment under compliant procedures.

MYTH: Local practice of stem cell treatment is not regulated by DOH; hence, it is illegal.

FACT:  The department has released Administrative Order No. 2013-0012 last year to lay out the rules for facilities engaging in cell-based treatment.

The AO enumerates limitations on stem cell therapies in the country, including use of “embryonic, aborted fetal, genetically altered, and animal and plant stem cells… proven to cause fatal complications or tumor formations.” More importantly, accredited health facilities are required to comply with guidelines set by the department in administering stem cell treatments.

With these regulations set by the health department to protect patients of stem cell therapy, interested parties must do their fair share of work by double-checking accreditations and qualifications of hospitals, clinics, and practitioners. The business can be considered illegal only if such treatment is being carried out by a non-accredited, non-qualified health facility and/or doctor.

MYTH: Stem cells can be ingested in the form of pills.

FACT: Many stem cell therapy alternatives have entered the market, promising to provide the same “miracle cure” at a lower cost. Most stem cell products are marketed as anti-aging products:cosmetic merchandise with stem cells, directly applied to skin or injected, usually contain stem cells from plants. Nutritional supplements promising to aid in release of stem cells for organ and tissue renewal are also present in the market.

Similar to stem cell treatments, stem cell and cell-based products are regulated by the government, under the mandate of Food and Drugs Administration (FDA). Make sure to check ingredients, sale permits and accreditations, and any disclaimers before any product intake, and do patch tests for any topical application.

MYTH: Stem cell therapy is a one-time treatment only.

FACT: Depending on the exact treatment, stem cell therapy may be completed in just one or multiple sessions. Most stem cell treatments – for example, a bone marrow transplant – would require other concurrent treatments, as well as a long process of examining the patient and carefully predicting how suitable the procedure and the expected results are for the patient.

Stem cell treatments are not one-size-fits-all cure, despite its portrayal in media. A specific cell type, procedure, and frequency per patient, whether for aesthetic or medicinal purposes, are needed to ensure huge percentage of success. For example, a bone marrow transplant, which is a form of stem cell treatment, would require certain donor-recipient compatibilities. Regenerative treatments, on the other hand, have less stringent requirements.

Ready to take the stem cell route for your medical and even aesthetic needs? Whether you choose a full treatment or cell-based products, be sure to take the necessary precautions, check accreditations and qualifications, and consult experts!



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