Technological advances are creating near miraculous possibilities in the field of medicine. However, unproven methods of treatment have also been around as long as medicine itself. These treatments may no longer be slapped on a bottle and sold as snake oil, but their effects could now be much more grave.
Three elderly patients in Florida recently discovered the horrifying consequences of trusting unofficial methods of medical treatment. A paper published in the New England Journal of Medicine discuss three women who sought treatment for macular degeneration, a leading cause of blindness in the elderly with 1.75 million sufferers in the US. The women had stem cells derived from fat tissue injected into both eyes. According to Dr. Thomas Albini, an ophthalmologist at the University of Miami, “These women had fairly functional vision prior to the procedure … and were blinded by the next day.” One of the patients retained no vision, while the other two are now legally blind. The treatment cost each of the women $5,000.
Albani expressed particular dismay in how the treatment was administered. “It’s very alarming to us as clinicians that somebody would do this to both eyes at the same time,” he said. Simply injecting one eye at a time could have mitigated the devastating results of the treatment by sparing the remaining vision of an untreated eye.
Dr. George Daley, Dean of Harvard Medical School, also had some strong words for the clinic. He stated that for-profit clinics operating outside of a proper research setting “is a gross violation of professional and possibly legal standards.”
Test, Test, and Test Again
True science is the result of painstaking testing and retesting within proven research standards. And, new technology is opening the floodgates for the amount of research that is and can be conducted. However, if solutions are applied before they are proven (or at least proven safe) by rigorous standards, the results could undercut important innovation. And this is not just limited to disastrous results such as in this case, even positive results can come into question if the research or treatment was not properly conducted.
Many of these for-profit stem cell clinics argue that they are not subject to FDA regulation. However, such clinics may be under increased scrutiny by the regulatory agency under proposed regulations. These new rules target so-called biohackers. For now, Albini suggests that patients seeking to be part of studies or seeking these kinds of treatments should get documentation that the study has been registered with the FDA and that they “make sure you are being treated by a licensed physician.”
New treatments may seem exciting, but it is most important to not jeopardize the health of patients and any future studies by being too hasty.