Stem Cell Therapies: What’s Approved, What Isn’t, and Why Not?

With acceptance of stem cell therapies growing, so have controversies surrounding regulations.

Desperate to heal sports injuries, top professional athletes have been known to pay tens of thousands of dollars for experimental stem cell treatments that many used to find controversial. But now, stem cell therapies have become more mainstream and are no longer limited to professional athletes. Stem cell clinics offer both medical and non-medical treatments with claims of improving aesthetics and quality of life.

One recent study found over 400 websites – with the largest portion in the United States – advertising stem cell-based therapies (1); another found over 570 U.S. clinics offering stem cell interventions (2), giving more evidence that the market for stem cell therapies in the U.S. is growing at an accelerated rate. Yet these therapies are too often based on unfounded claims and lack proper clinical trials or authorized regulation. Despite what some clinics claim, very few stem cell treatments are currently available that are actually approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Hematopoietic stem cells harvested from bone marrow are routinely used in transplant procedures to treat patients with cancer or other blood or immune system disorders. Banking of umbilical cord blood is FDA-regulated and its use is approved for certain indications. Otherwise, consumers should be wary of claims by stem cell clinics implying FDA-approval.

So why aren’t more FDA-approved stem cell therapies available?

The FDA has strict regulations on using stem cell products in humans. In most cases, stem cell-based products are categorized the same way as pharmaceutical drugs. Therefore, each new therapy must go through a rigorous process including pre-clinical animal trials, phased clinical studies, and pre-market review by the FDA prior to offering the treatment in the clinic.

And with stringent regulatory requirements comes prohibitive costs. Research animals, Phase I-III clinical trials, and the regulatory demands for good manufacturing practice (GMP) labs result in an extraordinarily costly process that may hinder the progress of new therapies. The cost of developing a new drug has even been estimated to reach billions of dollars.

Nevertheless, a complete lack of regulation of stem cell therapies – as is seen in many of the stem cell clinics springing up worldwide – is clearly problematic. Alarmingly, many clinics advertise claims related to medical diseases for which there is no scientific consensus that supports their safety or efficacy. Premature commercialization of unproven therapies not only puts patients at risk, but also jeopardizes the credibility of still-developing stem cell products.

One of the most exciting outlooks for stem cell therapy is the prospect of using one’s own stem cells for personalized medicine. Should the development of an autologous stem cell product really be regulated the same way as a pharmaceutical drug, which is aimed at treating huge populations of people? If not, how should stem cell products be regulated?

In an effort to make the transition of novel stem cell products to the clinic more seamless, some countries have made significant changes in regulations. For instance, in 2014, Japan broke out a separate regulatory system for stem cell products that softened legislation dramatically to require only limited safety and efficacy data. Some argue that countries with softer regulations and less stringent safety and efficacy milestones, such as Japan, have poised themselves to become the likely pioneers in the field of regenerative medicine.

Regulatory frameworks for the clinical application of stem cell products are still evolving in most countries, including the U.S. In March, the Reliable and Effective Growth for Regenerative health Options that improve Wellness (REGROW) Act was introduced to congress. This change in legislation would remove some of the regulatory hurdles that hinder the progress of biologic therapies.

Regardless, the FDA needs to establish a more reasonable regulatory system that can evaluate the safety and efficacy of stem cell products in a more efficient manner.


1.  Berger, I., et al., Global Distribution of Businesses Marketing Stem Cell-Based Interventions. Cell Stem Cell, 2016. 19(2): p. 158-62.
2.  Turner, L. and P. Knoepfler, Selling Stem Cells in the USA: Assessing the Direct-to-Consumer Industry. Cell Stem Cell, 2016. 19(2): p. 154-7.

 

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