Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Highly experimental stem cell therapy underway

Stem cell therapies are as controversial as they are experimental. So far, it has been proven difficult to develop treatments that are beneficial for a patients' health, although improvements have been made with the use of stem cells to repair blood vessels, liver tissue and visual impairment, for example. It will take a while before such therapies become a commodity. In Italy, a new stem cell treatment has been given the green light, and is aimed at treating terminally ill children. The sole reason for the approval is the high unmet clinical need, as this novel treatment has no proven track record.

A total of 32 terminally ill patients with destructive diseases such as spinal muscular atrophy will be given a cocktail of stem cells in the hope that it will alleviate their symptoms. In these patients, which are predominantly children, it is hoped that the stem cells repair tissue damage and restore its function, despite having shown no efficacy before. Green light has been given by the Italian authorities to conduct this medical experiment.

While it is not uncommon to lift some of the requirements for medical treatments if there is a high medical need, this particular form of stem cell research is highly controversial. The stem cells that will be used for the treatment of these terminally ill patients are produced by the Stamina Foundation, founded in 2009 by Davide Vannoni. The organisation aims at developing new treatments based on so-called mesenchymal stem cells. While several experiments have been conducted, the Stamina Foundation does not share many of its results with the scientific community, and from the results that have been published no positive outcomes were noted.

This experiment is interesting from both a medical as well as an ethical perspective. As said, there is no proven track record that medical doctors can build upon before they administer the cocktail. Equally so, it is very peculiar that such experiments are condoned by the government, which has lead to a series of protests in Italy, from both the general public as well as scientists. Regardless of the outcomes, the results are likely to fuel the ongoing stem cell debate.

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