Amniotic Stem Cells Are Not like Sea Monkeys!

We all remember “the miracle of instant life”! Millions of kids have experienced anxiously waiting that long, agonizing 24 hours it takes before Mom and Dad will let them pour in the Sea-Monkey eggs! The wait is made even worse by perusing the sea-monkey booklet, seeing these cute and cuddly, humanlike creatures playing ball and performing circus tricks! And for the first few days after the eggs hatch, it is kind of amazing, until, of course, you at some point realize that what’s on the box isn’t what you were sold. In fact, for many kids, it’s a rite of passage for buyer-beware advertising scams. What’s weird is that we have the twenty-first-century version of the Sea-Monkey scam going on now with amniotic and cord-blood “stem cells.” What’s disturbing is that the very people we’ve come to trust, our doctors, are the ones selling the scheme. This was again brought home by a text I received from a patient this weekend.

The Miracle of Instant Life!

I loved Sea-Monkeys! I couldn’t wait to show my own kids how all of this worked and they, too, when they were younger, became hooked. Recently, I saw a documentary on the guy who invented Sea-Monkeys and the fact that for decades all of us have been even more scammed then we knew.

If you remember your Sea-Monkey kit, the first step is to add the “Water Purifier” and then wait 24 hours before you add the Sea-Monkey eggs packet. Who can sleep that night before the eggs go in? It’s almost like that sleepless vigil waiting for Santa. The next day, most kids are sure to wake their parents up early to finally hatch their Sea-Monkey pets!

Well, it turns out that we’ve all been “creatively mislead” when it comes to the first step. The Sea-Monkey eggs are actually in the “Water Purifier” packet. The inventor of this ruse had a problem to solve. It takes a day of growing for these little brine shrimp to get big enough to see, even with those little magnifying glasses built into the plastic tank. So the second packet is merely more food and a little food coloring to make the transparent shrimp visible! Turns out our Sea-Monkeys were hatched and in the tank that whole long and tortuous first night.

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The Miracle of Instant Life 2.0

A patient this weekend sent me this photo from his orthopedic foot-and-ankle specialist’s office with the comment that his doctor had told him that he could get “stem cell therapy” in his office:

amniotic stem cells

This is a product brochure for AmnioFix, a powder that the doctor mixes with water, kind of like Sea-Monkeys. Regrettably, unlike Sea-Monkeys, this is not living tissue that can spring to life once it hits the water. In fact, if you read the brochure, the term “dehydrated” means that this is a dried powder of human amniotic tissue. Human cells can’t have all of their water sucked out and then be reconstituted. While certain creatures have this skill (like brine shrimp), we humans don’t have that superpower.

In addition, AmnioFix is also “gamma irradiated” to ensure it’s sterile. This means that radioactive isotopes that emit deadly gamma rays are used to bombard the sample so that no living thing survives. Gamma irradiation is so powerful that it even wipes out viruses, which are notoriously tough to kill. For example, some viruses even survive in liquid nitrogen, which is just north of the temperature of deep space.

In addition, I know Mimedix to be one of the good guy companies that doesn’t advertise that it’s products have living cells. In fact, they go out of their way to make a point of the fact that they believe these products work through native growth factors and cytokines in the product and not living cells. So you would be as likely to find living human stem cells in the Sea-Monkeys kit as finding them living in AmnioFix.

While it’s reasonable that many patients wouldn’t know that there is no way a living cell could exist in this amniotic-membrane powder, a doctor should know better. How could a board-certified orthopedic surgeon who went to four years of college, four years of medical school, five years of internship and residency, and then a foot-and-ankle fellowship not understand this? There are only three possibilities, and none one of them are good. Either this doctor is an idiot, he’s not paying attention, or he’s actively involved in perpetrating consumer fraud.

It’s unlikely that a professional who jumped through this many professional hoops is an idiot, so we’ll cross that off the list. It is entirely possible that this doctor isn’t paying attention and never noticed the word “Dehydrated” which proceeds “Human Amnion/Chorion” on the AmnioFix labeling. However, that also seems unlikely. After all, it would be on every box of this stuff. Even if the doctor is going a mile a minute and never noticed it, it’s the doctor’s responsibility to know what he’s injecting into the patient. Which brings us to possibility number three. The doctor knows that there is nothing living in AmnioFix but is using the term “stem cells” as a “marketing term.”

Is It Ethical to Use the Term “Stem Cells” to Market to a Patient when You Know There Are No Stem Cells?

I found this legal discussion and definition of consumer fraud that involves a “bait and switch”:

“This act of deception on behalf of a seller occurs constantly in within the consumer-driven world of retail, but for proper legal action to be taken, there must be proof that the fraud was completely intentional and part of a greater selling scheme.”

So if the doctor knows that AmnioFix contains no living stem cells, then offering this as a stem cell therapy is bait-and-switch consumer fraud. However, even if he doesn’t know, the doctor also has the legal responsibility to know. After all, if he injects you with something that harms you, the excuse “I didn’t know what was in it” isn’t a reasonable legal malpractice defense. It’s not hard to see that even if telling a patient that dehydrated dead tissue is a living “stem cell therapy” isn’t clearly illegal, it’s certainly unethical and actionable at the state medical-board or civil-malpractice level.

The upshot? How did we get here? To this place that we have highly educated physicians selling dead, dehydrated, and gamma-irradiated tissue as a live stem cell therapy? I don’t know, but we can’t escape the fact that stem cells aren’t Sea-Monkeys. They can’t be dehydrated and survive, and they shouldn’t be a marketing scam designed to hook unsuspecting consumers!

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Chris Centeno, MD is a specialist in regenerative medicine and the new field of Interventional Orthopedics. Centeno pioneered orthopedic stem cell procedures in 2005 and is responsible for a large amount of the published research on stem cell use for orthopedic applications. View Profile

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NOTE: This blog post provides general information to help the reader better understand regenerative medicine, musculoskeletal health, and related subjects. All content provided in this blog, website, or any linked materials, including text, graphics, images, patient profiles, outcomes, and information, are not intended and should not be considered or used as a substitute for medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Please always consult with a professional and certified healthcare provider to discuss if a treatment is right for you.

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