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Debate, concerns mounting over stem cells amid anecdotal success stories

Posted: 7:11 PM, Sep 26, 2018
Updated: 2018-09-27 11:41:27-04

Editor's Note: Denver7 360 stories explore multiple sides of the topics that matter most to Coloradans, bringing in different perspectives so you can make up your own mind about the issues. To comment on this or other 360 stories, email us at  360@TheDenverChannel.com . See more 360 stories  here .

DENVER -- Chances are you've heard a lot about new, trendy stem cell injections to stop surgeries and pain. Supporters consider them a miracle medicine, even as many surgeons still consider them an unproven scam. But there are a growing number of perspectives that are forcing consumers to make a tough, expensive choice.

A quick search of Google or YouTube produces hundreds of video testimonials from people saying stem cell injections changed their lives for the better.

"Look how I'm walking," a woman identified as Edie explains in a video just one month after she said she received amniotic stem cells in her right knee. 

"I walk straight, I sit straight," another stem cell patient said.

"Try it. You won't be sorry," yet another patient said.

Denver7 decided to shine a '360' spotlight on the issue in the wake of a Contact7 investigation earlier this year where patients told horror stories about thousands of dollars wasted on ineffective stem cell injections. The debate is growing among people offering stem cells, the government, researchers and surgeons.

"I think my concern is people are getting roped into something that we really don't have a lot of science evidence behind it," Broomfield orthopedic surgeon Ian Weber told Contact7.

Weber has said he continues to see a growing number of patients who still need surgery after trying stem cells -- patients who, he says, had no chance of preventing surgeries.

"So, we were frustrated three months after seeing no results," Eduardo Dominguez, Jr. said in an interview with Contact7.

Weber and his colleagues say any number of anti-inflammatory properties in a stem cell injection could provide pain relief, not necessarily the stem cells themselves. They say stem cells almost certainly are not regrowing a person's cartilage in any meaningful way to avoid surgery.

Across the country, similar stories are coming to light.

"He didn't improve at all," a stem cell recipient's relative told Denver7's sister station in Tampa, Fla.  "It just really got worse."

Supporters of stem cells will readily tout anecdotal success stories and say they far outweigh any problems.

Dean Jones, who leads West2North Medical Solutions in Denver, which Contact7 investigated earlier this year, continues to point to patient testimonials as proof of stem cell performance.

In a recorded exchange posted on YouTube, a patient told Jones he regained sensation in his foot just 30 minutes after he received a stem cell injection.

Despite the success stories, researchers advise caution.

"I think there's potentially great promise with stem cells," Dr. Jonathan Woodcock, an associate professor of neurology at University of Colorado Denver's Anschutz campus previously told Contact7.

Researchers like Woodcock say stem cells are not necessarily dangerous, but are still not scientifically and clinically proven using randomized, double-blinded clinical trials -- the gold standard used in medical research for generations.

"People, I think, have to understand they're making a bet on something that is simply unknown at the present time and that does involve certain risk," Woodcock said.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has yet to back routine injections of stem cells, especially for orthopedic issues. Private insurance companies generally do not cover the costs of injections either, which can exceed $10,000 for a single injection in some cases.

However, the medical community generally recognizes that stem cell therapy is on the same trajectory of other forms of regenerative medicine like platelet-rich plasma, or PRP, which is a concentrate of platelets from a patient's own blood with a high concentration of growth factors that can help heal injuries.

"Ninety percent of what we use is platelets -- platelet-rich plasma," Dr. Chris Centeno at Broomfield-based Regenexx told Contact7. He said the other 10 percent of his work involves stem cells.

Centeno said PRP has simply been around longer and gained a greater, and growing, acceptance in the medical community.

"You can go down the street to a local doctor and get a PRP shot for a thousand bucks that'll do more, in general, than this $6,000 fake stem cell procedure," he said.

The bottom line is this: stem cell injections are new and trendy, and can, in some way, relieve pain for some people. But patients need to ask themselves -- and their doctors -- if the injections are worth the cost and risk to them to try.

"I encourage people to talk about it, but you have to get the true facts of it," Weber said.