Stem cell injection blinds three

Stem cell injections are still novel and needs to be thoroughly researched (Photographer: David Lienhardt).

by Kat Pooprasert

Three elderly women diagnosed with a common age-related eye disease were given stem cell injections at a Broward County clinic in 2015. Just recently, they were found to be blind. Many specialists have been suspicious about the effectiveness of this treatment and now their suspicions have unfortunately been justified.

The women each had both eyes injected on the same day with stem cells obtained from their body fat. Worse, they had little to no follow-up before or after their treatments. The procedure itself cost up to $5,000 per procedure.

Thomas Albini, a clinical ophthalmologist at the University of Miami Health System’s Bascom Palmer Eye Institute was one of the skeptics and was also involved in the care of two of the three women. He described how he “was just in disbelief that this was happening in Broward”. He further said that “I knew that things like this could happen in other countries that don’t have a sophisticated medical regulatory environment. But I really was naive to the fact that this could happen in the United States. Then I realized I was just naive about it as the patients were.”

Albini described that there is a ‘loophole’ in the U.S. government’s policy of unproven treatments involving stem cells. He was also skeptical about if federal regulators are vigorous and strict enough. He says that “for us to get to the point where we can establish good stem cell therapy, we have to do good research that is ethical and also scientific. Whatever these patients had, it was neither ethical or scientific.”

Mike Tomas, CEO of US Stem Cell biotechnology company disagreed that the clinic’s stem cell treatments are unsafe. He says how “for nearly 20 years our clinics have conducted more than 7,000 stem cell procedures with less than 0.01 percent adverse reactions reported.”

The three unfortunate women had macular degeneration, a very common eye disease among the elderly. The stem cell injections were given at a clinic in Sunrise called U.S. Stem Cell Clinic.

36 hours after their treatment at the Broward clinic, two of the three women were sent to the emergency room at Bascom Palmer for debilitating conditions which included increased blood pressure in their eyes, excessive bleeding, retinal detachment and lens dislocation.

Before treatment, the women all had moderate vision loss but a year into their treatment, their vision ranged from total blindness to 20/200, which translated to being legally blind.

Professor Caufield from the University of Alberta says that “some of the clinics are making promises about therapies for ALS, for cancer, for autism, for everything.” He says how “there’s this perception that there are all these stem cell therapies out there that are close to clinical application that..are being held back by regulators and if they jus step back, there would be all these treatments. It’s just not the case. The science isn’t there yet.”

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