WARNING: Not all Stem Cell Treatments are Equal
Here’s what you need to know…
- Every step of the stem cell collection process affects the quality of the stem cell product and the treatment outcome for patients
- The mini-liposuction must be performed by an experienced plastic surgeon using a specialised cannula in a high class surgical theatre
- The isolated stromal vascular fraction (SVF) should not be exposed to any “for research use only” titanium probes due to risk of loose titanium debris contamination
- Closed system ultrasonication provides a pure and safe sample of stem cells and growth factors without relying on outdated bacteria-derived enzyme digestion techniques
- Unless the doctor is a qualified orthopaedic surgeon, they should not be attempting to inject any stem cell product deep inside a patient’s joints or attempting prolotherapy (ligament/tendon therapy)
- Pursuing treatment options through a reputable medical travel agency filters out the low quality clinics and ensures that patients are treated by a trusted medical team selected for their outstanding treatment quality and safety.
As stem cell treatment clinics continue to open along the shores of Australia and New Zealand, it’s important that all patients are reminded that the medical industry is not perfect and stem cell treatments are largely unregulated in Australia and New Zealand.
“Rogue operators both in Australia and overseas are charging thousands of dollars for ineffectual stem cell treatments”, reported the ABC News in 2014 (about treatments of multiple sclerosis and chronic disease). Australia’s authorities on stem cell research groups have also warned Australians on the risks of the unfounded claims in the treatment of obscure diseases – “They’re selling treatment without any proof of benefit, and without any proof of safety.”
Doctors will always do their best to diagnose and treat our medical condition(s), but patients are still responsible for seeking out the best clinics and doctors in this global medical market.
With years of experience in medical research and as a consultant for medical travel agencies, I’ve inspected some of the world’s most amazing medical facilities and met highly skilled doctors and surgeons. I’ve also seen the other end of the medical spectrum and almost everything in between.
The following “6 reasons why all stem cell treatments are not equal” are real-world considerations written to help inform patients about how to make the best decisions for their medical needs, no matter where they receive treatment…
1. There are fantastic clinics and there are less fantastic clinics – everywhere
There are two ends to the spectrum in stem cell medicine: there are experienced, talented, hard-working medical teams who work together to provide the best outcomes for the patients they know they can help; and there are small, “one-wo/man-show” clinics that open their doors to any trusting patient as they develop their experience under the guise of “experimental medicine”.
Large, established clinics are experienced in diagnosing patients and assessing whether they are likely to benefit from their treatments based on the clinic’s long history and experience.
Small, newer clinics often try to treat as many patients as they can without proper assessment, hoping that enough patients through the door will lead to at least a handful of news-worthy successes.
Large, established clinics employ qualified orthopaedic and spinal surgeons for specialist guidance in both diagnosing and treating their patients.
Small, newer clinics are typically run by ex-general practitioners and primary care physicians who haven’t performed any form of surgical or injection-based procedure since their post-graduate years in hospital.
Large, established clinics draw on the newest, safest and most advanced technologies to provide the safest treatments and best outcomes for patients. These technologies are often licensed to smaller clinics interested in staying at the leading edge of regenerative medicine.
Small, newer clinics often resort to using the same protocols reported in research published 5-10 years ago – using shallow ultrasound guidance and cell processing equipment not approved for medical use (research only).
When you haven’t had much experience in sorting out the best stem cell clinics from the worst, pursuing stem cell treatments can be a daunting task.
Recommendation: Before committing to stem cell treatments for their convenience (e.g. local clinics, cheap treatments etc.) make sure you discuss your options with an experienced medical facilitator. The most suitable treatment option for your needs (medical, care, financial) may well be interstate or overseas.
2. Mini-liposuction is a specialised surgical procedure and should only be performed by plastic surgeons in surgical theatres
Before regenerative cells can be processed and reintroduced into a patient’s joint for stem cell treatment, a mini-liposuction procedure is performed to collect a stem cell-rich sample of fat tissue called the stromal vascular fraction.
Although mini-liposuction is a minimally invasive procedure, if it’s attempted by a doctor without specialised plastic surgery experience, things can go very badly – and that’s not worth saving a dollar or two. Apart from an unnecessarily higher risk of infection, a deep, unsightly crater can result when the surgeon isn’t experienced in liposuction contouring (a skill almost all plastic surgeons will have perfected).
Qualified plastic and reconstructive surgeons have (at minimum) over half a decade of surgical experience, not only in invasive aesthetic surgery but more importantly, in minimally invasive, minimal trauma lipoaspiration (used in high quality stem cell collection).
A “cosmetic doctor” (not surgically trained physician) is surprisingly still permitted to attempt many of the surgical procedures performed by plastic surgeons regardless of their limited experience.
Not all doctors have the same specialty experience and not all clinics are built with surgical theatres. If the procedure isn’t being performed in a high-grade surgical theatre, your risk of experiencing a complication(s) is significantly greater.
Recommendation: Always make sure that the medical team treating you employs an experienced and qualified plastic surgeon to perform your mini-liposuction procedure in a high-grade surgical theatre.
3. Sometimes, the equipment clinics use to process stem cells is better suited to making Margaritas
As a medical research scientist, I would routinely have my research students separate non-human cell types (heart cells, muscle cells and fat cells) using a machine called an “ultrasonicator”. It might sound like a cheesy sci-fi weapon, but essentially it’s a simple handheld device that omits high-frequency sound along a long titanium tube (probe). When turned on, ultrasonicators make an unbearable high-pitched screech and look a lot like a handheld bar mix.
I don’t have to use the ultrasonicator, so why do I care?
Titanium ultrasonicators are tools approved for “research purposes only”. More often than not, the ultrasonicators used to process a patient’s stem cells are the same or inferior models to those we once used in the research lab. Unfortunately, these machines are passed off as advanced tools (only compared to outdated digestion techniques) and have been confirmed to:
- Contaminate the cells with microscopic shards of titanium stripped from the inside of the ultrasonicator probe,
- Unequally break up cells through human error, resulting in an inconsistent mix of predominantly dead cells and traumatised living cells, and
- Unnecessarily expose the collected stem cells to a non-sterile environment, increasing the risk of contamination.
Although high-quality ultrasonication units are expensive and may influence the price of the stem cell treatment for patients, large clinics will often invest in this infrastructure and work with large biotechnology firms to develop these tools.
Recommendation: Thankfully, it’s quite easy to ask at a stem cell clinic whether the cell biologist uses a titanium ultrasonicator probe or an automated closed system ultrasonication unit for the processing of your lipoaspirate (fat tissue collection). Insist on making sure your clinic assesses cell viability using immunofluorescence (determines the percentage of stem cells that survive processing) to ensure you’re not being injected with dead “cooked” stem cells.
4. Orthopaedic surgeons know your joints better than anyone else
Although most practising doctors are extremely well educated and familiar with human musculoskeletal anatomy (the arrangements of your bones and muscles), they are likely not as familiar with the diseases and pathological conditions which affect them.
Orthopaedic surgeons are highly skilled medical surgeons who routinely assess, diagnose and make treatment recommendations for joint conditions.
Unlike a general practitioner or a sports physician, qualified orthopaedic surgeons have spent countless hours operating inside the joints of patients with a wide range of cartilage and bone defects. They confidently approach joint treatment with a wealth of experience and can be depended on to identify which treatments are likely to be effective in each specific case.
Recommendation: Make sure that your treating stem cell doctor is an orthopaedic surgeon and that they are directly involved in your diagnosis and treatment before proceeding with that clinic. Medical travel agencies are able to organise this for you, often at no additional cost.
5. Experience means knowing what makes the difference
Although many stem cell treatment protocols follow similar treatment plans, larger experienced clinics employ a range of supportive therapies to nurture the cells once they’ve been injected. Typically, these assistive therapies aim to improve the outcome of stem cell treatments by:
- Reducing excess inflammation within the joint (NSAIDs, Intraarticular Weber medical laser),
- Improving oxygen carrying capacity and saturation (Oxyven therapy, IV Weber medical laser)
- Increasing local cell communication signals to drive growth (cartilage growth peptides/cytokines)
Recommendation: Although supportive therapies may not mean the difference between a stem cell treatment working and not working, there is evidence to suggest that these therapies improve the comfort of patients during and immediately following treatment; and assist in reducing pain and inflammation as the cells regenerate the underlying tissues.
6. How can a medical travel agency make finding the right clinic easier?
The immediate benefits of letting a medical travel agent coordinate your medical stem cell treatments include:
- Specialised medical travel agencies have inspected each of the medical facilities and doctors in their portfolio to ensure that they satisfy the standards outlined above
- Medical travel agencies break down all of the barriers between you and access to the best clinics/hospitals in the world by packaging and organising flights, accommodation, treatments and on-the-ground care
- Medical travel agencies often drive the prices down of all these medical travel inclusions so that more patients have access and can benefit from these high-end treatments without spending more
And remember: Your medical travel agency is your local connection to global medical travel and as such, will still be here when you return home. You can trust that no medical travel agency will connect you with a clinic that provides anything but the best in terms of service, treatment quality, safety and patient satisfaction.
*Please read: Although the information provided on this page may describe a particular patient experience and/or outcome, readers must understand that each patient presents with a unique medical history and may be recommended a different treatment/surgery by their surgeon to that described above. Individual results may vary between surgery centre/hospital, surgeon, surgery type and patient. Although SkyGen agrees to share all updates from patients at their request, SkyGen does not endorse any physical activities attempted by patients following surgery which do not follow the explicit instructions provided by their surgeon. SkyGen encourages all patients to discuss the risks of such activities with medical professionals before attempting these themselves.