Stem Cells and COPD: What You Need to Know.

I enjoy fielding questions from patients. Yes, I sense you’re rolling your eyes, but really, anything that I can answer that helps keep them out of the hospital is, I feel, time well spent. Recently though,  I’ve been fielding a number of questions that have me concerned. These questions often have a leading tenor about them like, “are you using stem cells for COPD yet?” The questions imply that stem cells are the de rigeur treatment for COPD. Now I may not be at the leading edge of any fashion, but being unfashionable in my treatment regimens? Never!

I can’t blame anyone for wanting to seek out treatments for COPD. It is after all, a leading cause of death and illness in the U.S. And it’s widely regarded that the changes caused by COPD/emphysema in the lungs are permanent. While there are now several different treatment options for emphysema/COPD, very few can prolong life. So if I had a family member with emphysema, I might naturally seek out treatments for COPD that go beyond the usual treatments, and with all the hype surrounding stem cells, why not take a look?

What people find when they google “stem cells and COPD” is in a word, distressing. It’s a fantasy world full of promises of health, healing, and better breathing. Equally distressing are the things that people who visit these sites aren’t recognizing: the greed, lies, lack of ethics, illusions, and misleading claims.

One such site claims of their stem cell treatment:

“Once the cells are returned to the patient, they will begin to regenerate new lung tissue. Since stem cells can continually replicate, the lungs will progressively grow stronger, and patients will be able to breathe easier.”

The audacity behind such an incredible mis-statement relies on 2 things; First, the incredible potential of stem cell research often touted in the media. Second, the public’s overall lack of understanding of what stem cells are and what they can (and can’t) do. Most of the promise of future stem cell therapies comes from embryonic stem cells, which are the most ‘primitive’. Unfortunately we have not yet unlocked the secret of how to make these cells mature into the tissue we want in a controlled fashion.

Stem cells harvested from adults are further along on the branch of cell maturity. They are usually specialized and fated to mature into certain types of cells. Thus blood stem cells mature into blood cells, neural stem cells mature into nervous tissue. Most stem cells that are taken from adults for treatments are blood forming stem cells, because they can be easily accessed from the bloodstream. These cells will only mature into blood products, and can never be anything else. To introduce them into the lung and expect them to become lung cells would be akin to introducing broccoli stems into a potato and expecting a better potato. Nature just doesn’t work that way!

Sure when I say it like that, it makes more sense, right? But stem cell sales tactics don’t include a rational explanation of basic tenets of biology. They combine false hopes, mystery, and ignorance to promote the non-science of what they call “stem cell research”. As of this writing, there are very few (if any) reputable studies recruiting patients for COPD stem cell research. The one such study which compared mesenchymal stem cells with placebo showed no improvements–in any meaningful way–of patients who were taking stem cell treatments. If you’re still considering enrolling in “stem cell research” consider what a leading stem researcher interviewed on 60 minutes called many of these studies:

They are “badly designed, uncontrolled, human medical experiments for profit, and at the other end of the spectrum you have thieves who are preying on the sick and their families”

If you would be interested in participating in reputable research, you can search for them at ClinicalTrials.gov. However, you should know that no reputable scientific establishment would EVER ask you to fork over large amounts of cash  to pay to be part of a research trial.

So to answer the question  “are you using stem cells for COPD yet?” Perhaps someday, but not yet.

Learn more about Stem Cells and COPD: American Lung Association: Statement on Stem Cells and Cell Therapies for Lung Diseases

International Society for Stem Cell Research: Top 10 Things to Know About Stem Cell Treatments

View CBS’ 60 Minutes 2010 segment, “21st Century Snakeoil”

Deep Ramachandran, M.D is a pulmonary, critical care, and sleep medicine physician, and social media co-editor of CHEST Journal. He blogs at CaduceusBlog, CHEST Thought Leaders Blog, and is on Twitter @Caduceusblogger.

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