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The truth about stem-cell advances.

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  • The truth about stem-cell advances.

    Why all these warnings suddenly regarding stem cell treatment this week? Do they want to delay stem cell progress, or it's real.

    December 6, 2008

    The truth about stem-cell advances
    For all their potential few stem-cell therapies are yet ready to be given to patients, says Mark Henderson
    Mark Henderson

    Stem-cell research has always been long on promise, but in recent weeks it has seemed to forge ahead. Last month British scientists announced the first successful transplant of an organ grown from the master cells - a section of windpipe known as a bronchus. And on Tuesday a German team reported that a stroke patient had received stem cells in a clinical trial for the first time.

    While these advances have used adult stem cells, research using those taken from embryos is also progressing fast. In August a US company produced blood from embryonic stem cells, and another is poised to begin trials of a spinal cord injury treatment.

    For all their potential, however, few stem-cell therapies are yet ready to be given to patients. The bronchus transplant and the stroke treatment are being offered only on an experimental basis, and embryonic approaches have not even reached that far.

    There are real risks involved in injecting most types of stem cell into the body: they can seed cancer, and infection and immune rejection are further hazards. Given the expense of these therapies, it is also imperative that their effectiveness is proved before patients or health systems are asked to pay for them. Their current place in medicine is in properly supervised clinical trials. Yet, as the International Society for Stem-Cell Research (ISSCR) noted this week, novel therapies that have not cleared this hurdle are already being sold directly to patients. Many are aimed at those with incurable and debilitating conditions, such as spinal paralysis or multiple sclerosis.