The academic bench scientists crying wolf about stem cells have been all aflutter pitching stories to media outlets with titles like, “Stem Cells may Cause Cancer”and “Stem Cell Clinic Cancer Risk!” The rationale seems to be driven by the fact that embryonic stem cells have this proclivity and a general wish that physicians shouldn’t use stem cells before their papal blessing.
While I’ve been a big critic of crazy stem cell clinics doing silly things and think these bench scientists may have a point in warning patients about some nutty clinics, the research is showing some egg on the face of these bench researchers when it comes to adult stem cells from bone marrow. A recent study by European researchers continues this trend.
To review, the concept that stem cells may cause cancer comes from embryonic stem cell research where teratomas (funky benign tumors with various tissues) have been noted in animal models. However, that apples to oranges comparison doesn’t seem to hold water with adult stem cells, with a recent very large study with a 12 year follow-up showing no cancer risk in almost 2,000 patients treated with bone marrow stem cells. While that paper was never picked up by the media, somehow a single case of some less than bright South American surgeon placing nose progenitor cells into someone’s spinal cord which caused a funky nose cell like tumor was picked up. This most recent paper explores the issue of bone marrow stem cells and cancer even further, by looking at stem cells placed in cancer patients. The paper is again by bone marrow concentrate pioneer, Dr. Hernigou. Almost 100 patients were treated over a decade with bone marrow stem cells after they had already had a tumor resected (so it was 100% positive they had cancer). The mean follow-up time was 15+ years. There was no increased risk of cancer recurrence above baseline levels in these patients.
The upshot? The academic cry wolf that stem cells can cause cancer is way off base for bone marrow stem cells as the recent medical literature demonstrates. The fact that you can use stem cells in patients with known cancers and there is no increased cancer risk is further evidence that the academic bench scientists will have to own the egg showing prominently on the face, never mind the nose!