Monthly Archives: May 2018

Private clinics’ peddling of unproven stem cell treatments is unsafe and unethical

Private clinics’ peddling of unproven stem cell treatments is unsafe and unethical

July 7, 2017 3.40pm AEST

Such unregulated direct-to-consumer advertising – typically of cells obtained using liposuction-like methods – not only places the health of individuals at risk, but could also undermine the legitimate development of stem cell-based therapies.

Many academic societies and professional medical organisations have raised concerns about these futile and often expensive cell therapies. Despite this, national regulators have typically been slow or ineffective in curtailing them.

As well as tighter regulations here, international regulators such as the World Health Organisation and the International Council on Harmonisation need to move on ensuring patients desperate for cures aren’t sold treatments with limited efficacy and unknown safety.

So what’s on offer?

Hundreds of stem cell clinics post online claims that they have been able to treat patients suffering from a wide range of conditions. These include osteoarthritis, pain, spinal cord injury, multiple sclerosis, diabetes and infertility. The websites are high on rhetoric of science – often using various accreditation, awards and other tokens to imply legitimacy – but low on proof that they work.

Rather than producing independently verified results, these clinics rely on patient testimonials or unsubstantiated claims of “improvement”. In so doing these shonky clinics understate the risks to patient health associated with these unproven stem cell-based interventions.

Stem cell clinics often rely on anecdotes and patient ‘testimonials’. Screenshot, Swiss Medica website

Properly administered informed consent is often overlooked or ignored, so patients can be misled about the likelihood of success. In addition to heavy financial burdens imposed on patients and their families, there is often an “opportunity cost” because the time wasted in receiving futile stem cells diverts patients away from proven medicines.

The many recent reports of adverse outcomes demonstrate the risks of receiving unproven cell therapies are not trivial. In the USA three women were blinded following experimental “stem cell” treatment for macular degeneration (a degenerative eye disease that can cause blindness). One man was rendered a quadriplegic following a stem cell intervention for stroke. And a woman whose family sought treatment for her dementia died in Australia.

Many clinics make claims stem cell treatments are effective for a vast range of conditions, most of which there is limited evidence for. Screenshot, Stem Cell Therapy Plus website

Other notorious cases involving the deaths of patients include the German government shutting down the X-Cell Centre and the Italian government closing the Stamina Foundation it had previously supported.

What’s approved?

At present, the only recognised stem cell treatments are those utilising blood stem cells isolated from bone marrow, peripheral blood (the cellular components of blood such as red and white blood cells and platelets) or umbilical cord blood.

Hundreds of thousand of lives have been saved over the last half-century in patients with cancers such as leukaemia, lymphoma and multiple myeloma, as well as rare inherited immune and metabolic disorders.

A few types of cancer and autoimmune diseases may also benefit from blood stem cells in the context of chemotherapy. Different stem cells are also successfully used for corneal and skin grafting.

All other applications remain in the preclinical research phase or are just starting to be evaluated in clinical trials.


Further reading: Yes there’s hope, but treating spinal injuries with stem cells is not a reality yet


Often dismissed by for-profit clinics as “red tape” hampering progress, the rigour of clinical trials allows for the collection of impartial evidence. Such information is usually required before a new drug or medical device is released into the marketplace. Unfortunately, in the case of for-profit stem cell clinics, their marketing has gazumped the scientific evidence.

Marketing regulation is needed so private clinics can’t make claims without evidence. Screenshot, ASC Treatment website

So what can be done?

Action is required on many fronts. Regulators at both an international and national level need to tackle regulatory loopholes and challenge unfounded marketing claims of businesses selling unproven stem cell interventions.

Researchers need to more clearly communicate their findings and the necessary next steps to responsibly take their science from the laboratory to the clinic. And they should acknowledge that this will take time.

Patients and their loved ones must be encouraged to seek advice from a trained reputable health care professional, someone who knows their medical history. They should think twice if someone is offering a treatment outside standards of practice.

The stakes are too high not to have these difficult conversations. If a stem cell treatment sounds too good to be true, it probably is.


For more information on recognised stem cell treatments visit the National Stem Cell Foundation of Australia and Stem Cells Australia, Choice Australia, EuroStemCell, International Society for Stem Cell Research, and International Society for Cellular Therapy.

Five claims about coconut oil debunked

Five claims about coconut oil debunked

Is coconut oil all it’s really cracked up to be, or is it just another fad? Sebastien Gabriel/Unsplash, CC BY

Coconuts have been a valued food in tropical areas for thousands of years, traditionally enjoyed as coconut water from the centre of the coconut, coconut flesh, or coconut “milk” (made by steeping the flesh in hot water).

Solid white coconut oil (I’ll use this popular term, although technically it’s a fat not an oil) is now the darling of celebrities and bloggers, paleo enthusiasts and sellers of so-called superfoods. Claims for its supposed medical value reverberate around the internet, but how well do they stand up to scientific scrutiny?

1. It helps you lose weight

No study has found coconut oil helps weight loss. The claim made on hundreds of internet sites that it has some special ability to get rid of body fat is based on the erroneous idea that coconut oil is synonymous with a semi-synthetic laboratory product known as MCT oil.


Read more: Health Check: are saturated fats good or bad?


Claims that coconut oil can get rid of body fat are based on false premises. From http://www.shutterstock.com

Unlike regular edible oils, MCT oil is soluble in water and was originally designed for use in tube feeding or for people who were malnourished because they lacked normal enzymes that split fat. Unlike most fats that are absorbed into the bloodstream, MCT oil is absorbed directly into the liver. This means it can be used more rapidly for fuel than other fats.

There is some evidence MCT oil may help with weight loss, although the dose required and its side effects – at least initially – can include nausea, stomach cramps and diarrhoea. Even so, internet sites that assume the effects of MCT oil also apply to coconut oil are wrong. The two products are not equivalent and you can’t switch the findings of one to the other.

MCT is made up of two fatty acids – caprylic and capric acids. Coconut oil has small amounts of these acids, but its dominant fatty acid is lauric acid. Lauric acid is not digested in the liver but is digested and metabolised in the body like the fatty acids in other edible oils.

If munching on a piece of coconut flesh (which is a reasonable source of dietary fibre) helps you eat less overall, that could be useful. However, a study of different fats, including coconut oil, found no beneficial effect on hunger, fullness, satisfaction or current thoughts of food.

2. It reduces heart disease risk

Careful studies show the overall effect of coconut oil on increasing LDL cholesterol (which increases the risk of heart disease) is greater than with corn, safflower or a mixture of soybean and sesame oils. It is, however, slightly better than butter.


Read more: Health Check: what’s healthier, butter or margarine?


Plenty of evidence from studies of people living traditional lifestyles with coconut (as flesh or the creamy liquid squeezed from the flesh) as their major source of fat show low levels of heart disease. They include 1960s studies of lean and active Pacific Islanders whose diets consisted mainly of fish, octopus, taro, breadfruit, bananas and coconuts.

Pacific Islanders use coconut as a major source of fat. Eddie Kopp/Unsplash, CC BY

The same applies to the very lean people of Kitava (a small island of Papua New Guinea), with their traditional diet of yams, cassava, sweet potato, taro, banana and other tropical fruits, fish and coconut. Their diet is not only low in fat, but also has little alcohol, salt, sugar, dairy or processed foods.

In contrast to these restricted diets of past times, coconut has not been able to protect against big changes in diet and activity. In Samoa, for example, coconut consumption hasn’t changed, but the total daily diet contributed 3,800 kilojoules (900 calories) more in 2007 compared with the 1960s. Pacific Islanders now top the world obesity tables, heart disease rates are high, and type 2 diabetes is three times more common than in Australia – all in spite of consuming coconut.


Read more: Got high cholesterol? Here are five foods to eat and avoid


As one recent review of 21 research papers and a further review have shown, coconut oil cannot be relied on to reduce blood cholesterol or protect against heart disease.

3. It kills bacteria and viruses

Some internet sites claim coconut oil can kill viruses, fungi and bacteria due to its content of monolaurin, a compound derived from lauric acid.

Studies in mice show monolaurin can provide some protection against the bacteria Staphylococcus aureus (responsible for some staph infections), but researchers doing this study found no effect with either refined or virgin coconut oil.

In particular types of infection, there is some possibility monolaurin might be of use, but it’s not valid to extrapolate from this to make claims about coconut oil when there’s no evidence the body can make monolaurin from coconut oil.

Instead, a manufactured form of monolaurin (glycerol monolaurate) is found in coconut oil and is popular for its emulsifying and moisturising properties in cosmetics, detergents and soaps. These properties in coconut oil could support its benefits as a surface moisturiser or make-up remover.

4. It repairs your hair

Several papers published in the Journal of Cosmetic Science claim that coconut oil applied to hair is better at penetrating the hair shaft than mineral oil.

This could be useful and it’s unlikely that coconut oil massaged into hair will have any adverse effect on human health, so if it appeals, it may be worthwhile to use it for this reason.

There are claims coconut oil will repair damaged hair. From shutterstock.com

5. It whitens your teeth

This claim is another extrapolation of the idea that coconut oil can kill harmful organisms. The practice of swishing oil in the mouth (called “oil pulling”) for 10-30 minutes before spitting hails from Ayurvedic practices in India and supposedly draws out toxins.

If it makes you feel sick or headachy, that’s meant to be proof you are extracting toxins.

There’s no scientific evidence to support this practice and it should not replace proper dental care.