It’s not everyday that a testimonial for a medical intervention ends with a pirouette. Yet there she was, one of two speakers at a stem cell sales pitch meeting, having completed her story of how tired she used to be and delivering an awkward pirouette while shouting with joy. Then she told us how Health Canada had stolen twenty years from her by keeping her away from stem cell treatments.
The potential for stem cells to permanently free us from damages, inflammation and serious diseases like cancer has received media attention for decades. But even though only a single stem cell intervention has been approved by health authorities in the U.S. and Canada, a rash of private clinics has spread over our continent, offering experimental treatments for conditions as wildly disparate as orthopaedic issues and visual impairment. (The only approved indication for stem cells as of this writing is to replenish the bone marrow, often using a bone marrow transplantation. I covered the topic on Cracked Science.)
Clinics selling these unproven stem cell treatments need customers, and so I attended one of their sale pitch seminars at a local hotel. This particular company does not have clinics in Canada yet, but they wanted to entice interested parties to travel south of the Canadian border to get a free exam and whichever stem cell treatment was required which, we were told repeatedly, would not be covered by any public or private insurance. (In case you’re curious, the basic intervention was $5,000, but the recommended one was $15,000.)
What followed was a two-hour elevator pitch that was at times predictable and often clumsy. But woven tightly into its fabric was a long line of sensational claims.
We can’t say it cures but… we will strongly imply it for two hours
The main presenter (a man, who did not pirouette) told us that, regarding Health Canada’s reluctance to approve stem cell technologies, it’s one thing for them to read and read, and hear things from other people, but when you come to a seminar like this, you’re gonna get deeper into it. “They haven’t gotten the education like y’all are getting right here.” And what an education it was. So many claims were made about the efficacy of stem cells that I decided to list them in a table.
As the woman speaker stated toward the end, “We cannot say that we are treating it… but […] we are able to help people with Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, Crohn’s disease.” Except that that line was crossed numerous times during the seminar, both indirectly by the testimonials we heard via video and directly by the speakers themselves. Of course, if Health Canada is not in the room, who’s policing what actually gets said?
We were shown many video testimonials from individuals who allegedly had had one of a vast array of diseases and who all claimed to have improved following a course of stem cells. After one of these videos, the speaker turned to us and asked, as if he were teaching a class, “What else did it cure? What else did it fix?” The answer was that, even though the treatment was given for a lung issue, it apparently also fixed the man’s diabetes, pain, and vision. Why? “It’s not guaranteed but, if you do have other [leftover] stem cells, once they’re finished taking care of what they’re set out to do, they will go fix other areas.” Stem cells, it would seem, are like the nano-robots science fiction has been promising us for decades.
Big Government and Big Pharma are the bad guys
The seminar occasionally veered off into the gravelly shoulder of conspiracy theories. We were told the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) still considered stem cell treatments “experimental” for political and corporate reasons. One of the speakers asked us the following loaded question: “Why else do you think the FDA doesn’t pay, doesn’t approve stem cells? Why they’re taking their time, I should say? ‘Big Pharma’? Do you think that has any bearing on it?”
Pharmacies sell you medication for the rest of your life, whereas ours is a single intervention, we were told. Plus, when you’re taking prescription drugs, “you’re treating the symptoms, is that fair to say?” Predictably, there was a slide claiming that the third leading cause of death in America was medical care.
Virtually no side effects!
The main speaker made a mess of explaining the different types of stem cells to our audience. Words like “mesenchymal”and “tumorigenic” were thrown about without explanation like they were car models we should seek out or avoid. There was much confusion over whether or not their company was using pluripotent or multipotent stem cells, but what was crystal clear was that these cells were safe. They were “natural” and, besides, the company followed all the necessary rules under the FDA. A slide proclaimed that stem cells had “VIRTUALLY NO SIDE EFFECTS!” Tell that to the many people who have been permanently injured by experimental stem cell therapies. While the cells themselves are indeed natural, forcing them out of the body, manipulating them with human-made tools, and injecting them into a different body is neither natural nor devoid of risk.
To add insult to injury, the healthcare professional in charge of their closest clinic is not a physician but a naturopath. We were shown her name and her initials, NMD. “Does anybody here know what an NMD is?” the main speaker asked. “It’s a naturopathic medical doctor, so she is an MD. Doctors go different routes when they get out of medical school. She chose this road. These are the kind of people that are best suited to do stem cell medicine. It makes sense, right?”
No, it does not make sense. None of it does. Naturopaths are not medical school graduates who specialize in naturopathy. They study pseudomedical philosophies like homeopathy and acupuncture. They are not the best people to administer stem cell treatments, which do carry an important risk and which are far from cure-alls at the moment.
The people in the room were looking for answers to their medical problems. Instead of an honest conversation about interventions that had proved themselves to us and whose risks were well understood, they were sold a hyped-up pipe dream through the use of scientific jargon and testimonials, with a dash of conspiracy and the structure of a time-share sales pitch. And these seminars, designed to enlist desperate older adults, are happening all over the world.
This particular company now also offers women an injection of stem cells right inside their… well, you know. We were told women would have a better sex life that way. “It’s a wow!” the woman presenter said in broken English.
In for a penny, in for a pound.
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