By Kaitlyn Schaeffer

When stem cells were first discovered, their potential to alleviate suffering and cure disease was considered almost unbounded. However, their application to therapies has greatly outpaced research. Certain cancers are now treatable using stem cell-based techniques, but the vast majority of stem cell procedures are being conducted without any evidence that they are effective or safe.

Many years ago, physicians in Japan and South Korea created a “fat-based stem cell” technique – extracting blood and fatty tissue from patients through liposuction, and then injecting the resultant liquid into other parts of the body. The technique was used to improve breast augmentation and face lifts. Soon, US citizens began flocking to those countries to take advantage of these treatments, contributing to the rise of an international stem cell tourism trade.

Entrepreneurs and doctors in the US soon capitalized on the idea. Since 2010, the number of stem cell clinics has proliferated from only a few national centers to 170 today. An alarming number of these clinics are affiliated with large, for-profit organizations. Doctors need only attend a weekend seminar to become proficient in the techniques, which they can then market as therapies for dozens of conditions, including lupus, multiple sclerosis, erectile dysfunction, Lou Gehrig’s disease, and many cosmetic procedures. Business is booming, but it is almost completely unregulated. Many critics maintain that these procedures are quackery, and their safety is questionable – one stem cell doctor has had multiple patients die under his care.

“It’s sort of this 21st century cutting edge technology,” says Dr. Paul Knoepfler, a stem cell researcher at the University of California at Davis. “But the way it’s being implemented at these clinics and how it’s regulated is more like the 19th century. It’s a Wild West.”

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