Current Status of Stem Cell Therapy: The Promise & The Danger

By: Khoo Tze Sean (

Stem cells have gained popularity not only among scientists, but also among the public in recent years. Hundreds of stem cell clinics are found to offer stem cell therapies in the United States alone. In Malaysia, there is also an increasing trend of stem cell clinics being set up by local and international companies. The hype has grown due to the ability of pluripotent stem cells to self-renew and differentiate into any cells of interest which grant them enormous potential in regenerative medicine. Stem cell therapies are capable of restoring organ functions via regeneration and functional repair of damaged tissues. It is possible that off-the-shelf stem cell products could be made available for therapy in the future. Nevertheless, based on current evidence, we are still at least years away from making it a reality as safety and efficacy data are still lacking. The only approved stem cell therapies by the Ministry of Health (MOH) currently are the bone marrow and peripheral blood stem cell transplantation for the treatment of haematological disorders such as leukaemia and thalassemia. The application of stem cells for other indications is still in the research stage.

It is important for the public to gain awareness regarding the possible danger of receiving stem cell treatments which have no safety or efficiency data. During the last MSCRT Stem Cell Symposium, held on 11th October 2016, several speakers including Prof Datuk Dr A Rahman A Jamal, the Chairman of National Stem Cell Research and Ethics Subcommittee (NSCERT) have shared the possible consequences of unproven stem cell therapies as well as tips to avoid such therapies. The use of stem cells for unproven indications without any safety and efficiency data is dangerous as the outcome is unpredictable. It is of no difference from gambling your life. The public needs to be aware that any stem cells injected into one’s body would likely to stay in the body forever. It could save you if it works, or it could kill you if it doesn’t, if transplanted cells start to transform into cancerous cells. A recent case study published in the New England Journal of Medicine has shown that transplanting embryonic stem cells and neural stem cells into the spinal cord of a patient who suffered from ischaemic stroke have resulted in glioma-like lesion around the injection site. The promise of stem cells is true, but it requires more time to optimize the culture and processing condition, to elucidate the mechanism of regeneration and repair, and to obtain sufficient safety and efficacy data.

In order to avoid falling into unproven stem cell therapies, the public is advised to look for evidence of safety and efficacy for any stem cell therapies they are pursuing. Whilst many stem cell clinics show convincing testimonials on their website, these customer testimonials can be subjective and subjected to placebo effect thus should not be taken as the sole reference to pursue a particular treatment. Always check if the stem cell therapy recommended by doctors or stem cell clinics is approved by the MOH or not. The public is also encouraged to report any suspicious activity of medical practitioners offering unproven stem cell therapies to the medical practice division, MOH.