Crackdown on unproven stem cell therapies long overdue, Ottawa scientist says

An Ottawa scientist says it's about time Health Canada cracked down on clinics offering unproven and potentially unsafe treatments that inject patients with their own cells, and he'd like to see the provinces follow suit.

Dr. Michael Rudnicki says provinces need to follow Health Canada's lead

Health Canada has announced it's cracking down on clinics offering unproven stem cell therapies. (Shutterstock)

An Ottawa scientist says it's about time Health Canada cracked down on clinics offering unproven and potentially unsafe treatments that inject patients with their own cells, and he'd like to see the provinces follow suit.

"They're not supported by any evidence whatsoever, and their claims are mostly wrong," said Michael Rudnicki, director of regenerative medicine at The Ottawa Hospital.

"There's absolutely no regenerative effect that's occurring."

Health Canada said it's ordering three dozen of these clinics across Canada to stop offering the services immediately. They include three businesses in Ottawa and one in Kingston, Ont. 

The federal agency issued compliance letters to Inovo Medical, Dr. David Simon and Oxygen Medi Spa in Ottawa, KOPI Stem Cell in Kingston, as well as 32 other clinics across the country. 

What these people are doing is essentially illegal.- Dr. Michael Rudnicki

The clinics offered patients a variety of stem cell and platelet-rich plasma treatments for a variety of health issues including hair loss, arthritis, heart problems, eye issues and multiple sclerosis. Patients are typically charged thousands of dollars for the treatments. 

"Generally, products using stem cells to cure or treat disease remain at the investigational stage of development," Health Canada said in an email. 

"This means that Health Canada has not yet seen enough evidence that they are safe and effective."

Health Canada is cracking down on clinics that claim to treat everything from multiple sclerosis to hair loss by injecting patients with their own stem cells. We check-in with a researcher about some of the stem cell misconceptions spread by these clinics. 9:35

A growing problem

Rudnicki said many of these clinics claim injecting patients with their own cells promotes healing, but these unproven "stem cells" therapies can actually be harmful.

Michael Rudnicki says he hopes the provinces will follow Health Canada's lead to crack down on the clinics. (Trevor Pritchard/CBC Ottawa)

In the case of the platelet-rich plasma treatments, the clinics use a concentrated amount of platelets from a patient's blood and inject them back into the person to promote healing. 

But that can pose risks such as cross-contamination if equipment isn't cleaned properly, or potentially dangerous immune reactions.

"It's a growing problem, I think, over the last 10 years," Rudnicki told CBC Radio's All In A Day.

Stem cell research holds a lot of promise and there's been huge scientific advances, Rudnicki said, but these clinics are using this excitement as a "marketing ploy." 

"What these people are doing is essentially illegal," he said.

"Stem cells are classified as drugs by Health Canada and you cannot just give people drugs that are not approved by Health Canada."

Time for provinces to act

Rudnicki said he welcomes the federal government's decision to crack down, but he would also like the same initiative to be taken by the province. 

"Health Canada has really stepped up its game and … that's a great start, but we also need the provincial authorities to become involved," he said. 

On Tuesday afternoon, CBC contacted the Ottawa and Kingston clinics that were issued compliance letters, but they haven't responded.


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