For a multitude of reasons, most of which arguably derives from fear, we work hard to combat the effects of aging. But to date no one has truly stumbled onto the “fountain of youth,” for in spite of the great lengths we travel or the great sums we spend, we have one physical truth—if we don’t suffer an early demise in front of a speeding bus, there is a high likelihood that with each passing year we simply stand witness to the slow, progressing failure of our physical systems.
Perhaps first we notice the gradual change of our hair, as the pigment cells in our follicles die. Then we’re forced to the optometrist as our lens’s ability to change focus from near to far strains and with it our eyesight. Like our arteries, we may notice that our joints and muscles begin to harden and weaken simultaneously. It’s a cascade of minute failures. A lifetime of wear and tear and random chance gently does its work.
Or perhaps it would be gentle if left to its own devices. In our efforts to fight aging we have effectively disrupted this process, making the act of aging, and dying, a medical emergency as opposed to a natural event. It is this habit of intervention that has led to a new up and coming star in this arena of age-defying—stem cells.
Today, stem cells—the ectoplasmic goo of birth and development—are prescribed to more than the growing zygote. Stem cells, the “freshest” of which (e.g. stem cells harvested from the placenta, umbilical cord, and amniotic fluid) are touted for their flexible tissue generating and regenerating properties, are now collected and injected in amazing and creative ways. Some researchers advertise their ability to treat everything from lupus to heart failure, from asthma to diabetes. Amniotic stem cells seem to be particularly powerful with their ability to develop into any kind of tissue, leaving star struck scientists dreaming about potential Nobel Peace Prizes that lie right around the corner for the person who harnesses this flexible life-giving tissue.
This new frontier, however exciting it may sound, is one of great suspect, and little oversight. While manufacturers are technically required to submit stem cell therapies for review as a “drug,” and to demonstrate they are safe and effective, the FDA hasn’t necessarily handled this requirement consistently. Certain stem cell applications, bone marrow transplants, for example, are supported by evidence, but the majority of the proposed cellular therapies marketed today are unproven, stemming (no pun intended) from a largely unregulated industry. Despite the lack of evidence, consumers aren’t hesitating to seek out syringes of stem cells to inject into their joints, and hope for the best.
While the material may be somewhat new in the commercial sense, this pattern of creative innovation, without great regard for safety, is not. Medicine’s speckled past is littered with stories of medicinally (and perhaps monetarily) minded folks who have sought a solution to a problem, labeled it a panacea, and then marketed the crap out of it with that goal in mind. Whether it was radioactive water, vitamin C, or stem cells, time and time again “innovation” has sped past the recesses of evidence, spread to the masses, consumed, with outcomes rendered. At times, this race has contributed to severe health issues, and at best it was an ineffective money vacuum.
In the context of new developments like stem cell therapy, sometimes it seems like we are either forced to stifle innovation in the pursuit of safety, or throw caution to the wind and let the mad scientists roam. There is no perfect solution to this push and pull, and often the burden of proof is left on the shoulders of the consumer. Consumers who either transform into guinea pigs, hungry for immortality, or who cast a critical eye, reading labels, scrutinizing claims, and crossing their fingers. It’s imperfect at best.
So…if someone hands you a vial of stem cells and tells you it will cure what ails ya…what would you do?
To read more about the regulatory concerns around stem cells, I encourage you to check out Caroline Chen’s article, The Birth-Tissue Profiteers . If you’re interested in the study of aging and the great lengths we seem to go to fight it, I highly recommend Atul Gwande’s Being Mortal.