UC Davis professor Paul Knoepfler’s new book about stem cells may never break into the New York Times best-seller ranks, but he still might make some publishing history.
Knoepfler could be the only biology researcher ever to write a comprehensive consumer guide about the health care treatments being developed in his own field—complete with safety cautions.
Stem Cells: An Insider’s Guide is also a scientific primer and a paean to the promise of stem cell research. But Knoepfler, whose 370-page book originated as a blog about his field, also wanted to protect the thousands of vulnerable patients who have prematurely looked to stem cell therapy as a last-ditch hope for a cure.
His greatest concern is for patients who have been lured by the false claims of dubious for-profit clinics to pay as much as $100,000 for unproven “stem cell treatments.” These injections, he says, may actually consist of cells culled from pigs, cows, or sheep, and bear unknown risks such as contamination or immune system reactions.
A growing network of secret online communities, as well as overt advertisements, have spurred US patients to pay fortunes out of pocket to ill-trained physicians, who perform experimental procedures backed by little or no evidence, says Knoepfler, an associate professor and researcher at the UC Davis School of Medicine’s Institute for Regenerative Cures.
“The number of patients being treated, and the number of providers, are increasing,” Knoepfler says. “I don’t think the FDA has the budget to deal with this.”
But Knoepfler’s book is also aimed at patients who are eager to enter FDA-approved clinical trials, confident that stem cell treatments will soon deliver miracle cures with few downside risks.
“One of the motivations for my book is letting people in on some of the realities,” Knoepfler says.
Knoepfler tells patients what many of them don’t want to hear—that very few stem cell therapies have yet been proven safe and effective, although thousands of clinical trials are under way. What’s more, testing those therapies requires even more careful safety monitoring than many other kinds of treatments, he says.
Stem cells pose unique risks because they are alive and can in theory grow inside the body, which makes them very different from most chemical or biologic drugs, Knoepfler says. Patients who have a bad reaction to a drug can stop taking it, and the body will eliminate it, he says.
“If you get injected with a billion living cells, the truth is, we really don’t know what happens after that,” Knoepfler says. One of the possibilities recognized by researchers is that the stem cells may eventually initiate the growth of a tumor—an issue that Knoepfler explores in his own lab at UC Davis.
That said, Knoepfler thinks the promise of stem cells will prove out, given enough time to carefully work out the bugs.
“I’m very optimistic about the stem cell field,” he says. “I think it will transform medicine in the coming decades.”
In his book, Knoepfler starts out with … Next Page »
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