Tim Boyle / Newsmakers
Tim Boyle / Newsmakers

Hype over hope: selling the stem cell dream



It is easy to understand why someone would try anything and spend any amount of money to save their lives, but the list of diseases for which stem cell treatments have been shown to be beneficial is still very short.

For decades, stem cell treatment has been hailed as the cure to end all ills, a miraculous lifeline thrown to desperate sufferers of diseases for which conventional medicine offers no hope.

Heart disease, Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis, diabetes, stroke, Alzheimer’s, muscular dystrophy, spinal injuries and more – believe those who peddle miracle cures, and there is no dead or damaged part of the human body that cannot be regenerated by stem cells.

It is easy to understand why someone facing their own terminal decline or a loved one’s would try anything and spend any amount of money to save their lives.

But mainstream medical practitioners say they are being sold more hype than hope. After all, if there really was a cure for any of these diseases, it would have been marketed by the global pharmaceutical industry long ago.

True, research is continuing around the world into possible benefits of stem cell treatments, as it has for decades. A search of Pubmed, the US National Library’s online repository of global biomedical research, shows that in the past year more than 11,000 papers have been published on the subject.

None of it, says the International Society for Stem Cell Research (ISSCR), has so far altered one stubborn fact: “The list of diseases for which stem cell treatments have been shown to be beneficial is still very short.”

The best-known stem cell treatments are bone marrow or cord blood transplants, used successfully for many years to treat blood and immune system disorders including leukaemia, lymphoma and sickle cell anaemia. Stem cells also play a supporting role in some bone and skin grafts.

But “all other applications of stem cells are yet to be proven in clinical trials and should be considered highly experimental”.

That’s why a joint announcement from the UCL Institute of Ophthalmology and Moorfields Eye Hospital in London has sent ripples of excitement through the global medical research community.

Wet age-related macular degeneration (AMD) is the leading cause of sight loss in the developed world. The macula, the central part of the retina at the back of eye, begins to deteriorate and central vision becomes increasingly blurred. Reading becomes difficult, then impossible. Faces become indistinct.

There was no cure. Until now, possibly.

In September, the first of 10 carefully selected patients underwent a pioneering new treatment that has been a decade in development.

A patch of specialist eye cells, grown in a lab from blank-slate “pluripotent” stem cells harvested from discarded embryos in an IVF programme, and chemically “trained” to evolve into macula tissue, was inserted into the patient’s eye during a two-hour operation.

The identity of the patient is not being revealed but, says Moorfields, “the team hopes to determine her outcome in terms of initial visual recovery by early December”.

If the operation works, that would be a great Christmas present.

During the next 18 months, proceeding cautiously, one operation and the necessary recovery and monitoring period at a time, nine more patients will be treated.

There is no point besieging the hospital in the hope of getting on the programme. Although “we hope that many patients may benefit in the future”, says Prof Pete Coffey of the UCL Institute of Ophthalmology, the trial “focuses on a small group of AMD patients who have experienced sudden severe visual loss”.

Retinal surgeon Prof Lyndon da Cruz from Moorfields Hospital, which has a branch clinic in Dubai, believes the trial will have huge significance for the future of stem cell therapy throughout medicine.

“It’s exciting because we feel we’ve delivered the real deal that was promised for stem cells,” he said.

“Not the outcome, yet, but this is the type of project for which stem cells could be extraordinarily revolutionary: to take a stem cell which can become anything and turn it into something that you want that’s useful for the patient and transplanted successfully into that patient in the midst of disease.”

As for the stem cell treatments being marketed around the world to patients with a wide range of diseases, “most are to fill the void for people with untreatable conditions who are desperate”.

The UCL-Moorfields team has “taken within a very tight UK regulatory framework a stem cell that is truly undifferentiated, that could become anything, and we have driven it to become a very specific layer of the retina.

“We have also demonstrated to the regulator that we are able to make recurrently and safely a perfect copy of a part of the retina.”

That, he says, may be a sufficient demonstration of the promise of stem cell even if they were dealing with a rare condition.

But AMD is the most common cause of vision loss in the western world “and so this achievement is doubly useful. One, it’s proof of principle about the stem cell promise, and two, if it all goes the way we would like it will have a big impact”.

Roger Barker, professor of clinical neuroscience and honourary consultant in neurology at the University of Cambridge and at Addenbrooke’s Hospital, has been working on the application of stem cell therapy in the treatment of Parkinson’s disease for 25 years.

Stem cells, Prof Barker says, undoubtedly hold “enormous potential. In theory, a stem cell source could be used to replace any injured organ or population of cells that are affected by disease”.

But such a breakthrough is “not around the corner. The problem is that simply turning a cell into, say, a heart muscle, is one thing, but making sure it’s properly connected to the electrical system of the heart so it actually functions as it should do is a critical question”.

In his own field, he and other researchers are working towards recreating the damaged specialised brain cells that cause Parkinson’s. “We now have a protocol where we think we can take embryonic stem cells and turn them into dopamine cells. The next big step will be doing all of that to a clinical grade, testing them for safety in preclinical animal models and then negotiating the regulatory process to take that to a first in human trial.”

That, Prof Barker thinks, could take another two or three years, which explains his irritation when he hears of clinics offering stem cell treatments for Parkinson’s.

“I feel sorry for the patients,” he says. “We get a lot of emails from people saying they’ve found this clinic and asking if they should go and have this therapy.

“When you have a disease for which there is no cure then obviously you are looking for anything, but these clinics prey on people’s desperation and are exploiting them financially.”

There are many of these clinics advertising on the internet, especially in the US and China, offering treatments and testimonials from the thousands of patients they claim to have treated successfully.

Three such companies are Stem Cells Egypt, Stem Cells Arabia and Stem Cells Middle East, all of which target the lucrative Middle East market – and all of them appear to be the businesses of one man.

Dr A A Hakim, a urologist based in Minnesota whose CV says he trained at the University of Alexandria in Egypt, claims to operate in conjunction with a Chinese company, Beike Biotechnology, offering stem cell treatments in China and Thailand.

His websites hold hope of cures for conditions including Parkinson’s disease, autism, congestive heart failure and multiple sclerosis.

The UK’s Multiple Sclerosis Society is not so confident. It funds a range of research into the potential of stem cells and says that while they have “the potential to help treat many different conditions”, work is still under way “to try to understand how these cells could be applied to the treatment of MS”.

Dr Hakim, who claims to have treated 15,000 patients with stem cells, declined to discuss what procedure he used to administer them, what qualified him to offer the therapy, what published research he had carried out in the field and how much he charged patients.

He also declined to supply evidence to back his claim that “stem cell treatment is the only effective treatment for 13 chronic diseases”, including diabetes, MS, spinal cord injury, autism and Parkinson’s disease – a claim that appears to fly in the face of accepted medical wisdom.

For now, the advice of the experts is “buyer beware” – no matter how desperate your condition.

EuroStemCell, a partnership of more than 400 European labs and research centres set up “to help European citizens make sense of stem cells”, says that although scientists are investigating the possibility of using stem cells to treat a range of conditions and there is “hope beyond the hype”, it is “still too early to know whether any of these applications will work.

“We need the evidence gathered through a clinical trial process to determine whether a proposed treatment is safe and effective.”

In the meantime, says the ISSCR, “beware of stem cell treatments offered without regulatory approval or outside the confines of a legitimate and registered clinical trial. Unproven treatments present serious health, personal and financial considerations.”

newsdesk@thenational.ae

COMPANY PROFILE

Name: Xpanceo

Started: 2018

Founders: Roman Axelrod, Valentyn Volkov

Based: Dubai, UAE

Industry: Smart contact lenses, augmented/virtual reality

Funding: $40 million

Investor: Opportunity Venture (Asia)

Sarfira

Director: Sudha Kongara Prasad

Starring: Akshay Kumar, Radhika Madan, Paresh Rawal

Rating: 2/5

Under 19 World Cup

Group A: India, Japan, New Zealand, Sri Lanka

Group B: Australia, England, Nigeria, West Indies

Group C: Bangladesh, Pakistan, Scotland, Zimbabwe

Group D: Afghanistan, Canada, South Africa, UAE

 

UAE fixtures

Saturday, January 18, v Canada

Wednesday, January 22, v Afghanistan

Saturday, January 25, v South Africa

The specs

Engine: 2.0-litre 4-cylinder turbo

Power: 240hp at 5,500rpm

Torque: 390Nm at 3,000rpm

Transmission: eight-speed auto

Price: from Dh122,745

On sale: now

How to keep control of your emotions

If your investment decisions are being dictated by emotions such as fear, greed, hope, frustration and boredom, it is time for a rethink, Chris Beauchamp, chief market analyst at online trading platform IG, says.

Greed

Greedy investors trade beyond their means, open more positions than usual or hold on to positions too long to chase an even greater gain. “All too often, they incur a heavy loss and may even wipe out the profit already made.

Tip: Ignore the short-term hype, noise and froth and invest for the long-term plan, based on sound fundamentals.

Fear

The risk of making a loss can cloud decision-making. “This can cause you to close out a position too early, or miss out on a profit by being too afraid to open a trade,” he says.

Tip: Start with a plan, and stick to it. For added security, consider placing stops to reduce any losses and limits to lock in profits.

Hope

While all traders need hope to start trading, excessive optimism can backfire. Too many traders hold on to a losing trade because they believe that it will reverse its trend and become profitable.

Tip: Set realistic goals. Be happy with what you have earned, rather than frustrated by what you could have earned.

Frustration

Traders can get annoyed when the markets have behaved in unexpected ways and generates losses or fails to deliver anticipated gains.

Tip: Accept in advance that asset price movements are completely unpredictable and you will suffer losses at some point. These can be managed, say, by attaching stops and limits to your trades.

Boredom

Too many investors buy and sell because they want something to do. They are trading as entertainment, rather than in the hope of making money. As well as making bad decisions, the extra dealing charges eat into returns.

Tip: Open an online demo account and get your thrills without risking real money.

MATCH INFO

Uefa Champions League semi-final, first leg
Bayern Munich v Real Madrid

When: April 25, 10.45pm kick-off (UAE)
Where: Allianz Arena, Munich
Live: BeIN Sports HD
Second leg: May 1, Santiago Bernabeu, Madrid

Museum of the Future in numbers
  • 78 metres is the height of the museum
  • 30,000 square metres is its total area
  • 17,000 square metres is the length of the stainless steel facade
  • 14 kilometres is the length of LED lights used on the facade
  • 1,024 individual pieces make up the exterior 
  • 7 floors in all, with one for administrative offices
  • 2,400 diagonally intersecting steel members frame the torus shape
  • 100 species of trees and plants dot the gardens
  • Dh145 is the price of a ticket
if you go

The flights
The closest international airport to the TMB trail is Geneva (just over an hour’s drive from the French ski town of Chamonix where most people start and end the walk). Direct flights from the UAE to Geneva are available with Etihad and Emirates from about Dh2,790 including taxes.

The trek
The Tour du Mont Blanc takes about 10 to 14 days to complete if walked in its entirety, but by using the services of a tour operator such as Raw Travel, a shorter “highlights” version allows you to complete the best of the route in a week, from Dh6,750 per person. The trails are blocked by snow from about late October to early May. Most people walk in July and August, but be warned that trails are often uncomfortably busy at this time and it can be very hot. The prime months are June and September.

 

 

Company Profile

Company name: Hoopla
Date started: March 2023
Founder: Jacqueline Perrottet
Based: Dubai
Number of staff: 10
Investment stage: Pre-seed
Investment required: $500,000

Illegal shipments intercepted in Gulf region

The Royal Navy raid is the latest in a series of successful interceptions of drugs and arms in the Gulf

May 11: US coastguard recovers $80 million heroin haul from fishing vessel in Gulf of Oman

May 8: US coastguard vessel USCGC Glen Harris seizes heroin and meth worth more than $30 million from a fishing boat

March 2: Anti-tank guided missiles and missile components seized by HMS Lancaster from a small boat travelling from Iran

October 9, 2022: Royal Navy frigate HMS Montrose recovers drugs worth $17.8 million from a dhow in Arabian Sea

September 27, 2022: US Naval Forces Central Command reports a find of 2.4 tonnes of heroin on board fishing boat in Gulf of Oman 

Five calorie-packed Ramadan drinks

Rooh Afza
100ml contains 414 calories
Tang orange drink
100ml serving contains 300 calories
Carob beverage mix
100ml serving contains about 300 calories
Qamar Al Din apricot drink
100ml saving contains 61 calories
Vimto fruit squash
100ml serving contains 30 calories

Simran

Director Hansal Mehta

Stars: Kangana Ranaut, Soham Shah, Esha Tiwari Pandey

Three stars

UK - UAE Trade

Total trade in goods and services (exports plus imports) between the UK and the UAE in 2022 was £21.6 billion (Dh98 billion). 

This is an increase of 63.0 per cent or £8.3 billion in current prices from the four quarters to the end of 2021.

 

The UAE was the UK’s 19th largest trading partner in the four quarters to the end of Q4 2022 accounting for 1.3 per cent of total UK trade.

The specs: 2017 Ford F-150 Raptor

Price, base / as tested Dh220,000 / Dh320,000

Engine 3.5L V6

Transmission 10-speed automatic

Power 421hp @ 6,000rpm

Torque 678Nm @ 3,750rpm

Fuel economy, combined 14.1L / 100km

EMIRATES'S REVISED A350 DEPLOYMENT SCHEDULE

Edinburgh: November 4 (unchanged)

Bahrain: November 15 (from September 15); second daily service from January 1

Kuwait: November 15 (from September 16)

Mumbai: January 1 (from October 27)

Ahmedabad: January 1 (from October 27)

Colombo: January 2 (from January 1)

Muscat: March 1 (from December 1)

Lyon: March 1 (from December 1)

Bologna: March 1 (from December 1)

Source: Emirates

Three ways to boost your credit score

Marwan Lutfi says the core fundamentals that drive better payment behaviour and can improve your credit score are:

1. Make sure you make your payments on time;

2. Limit the number of products you borrow on: the more loans and credit cards you have, the more it will affect your credit score;

3. Don't max out all your debts: how much you maximise those credit facilities will have an impact. If you have five credit cards and utilise 90 per cent of that credit, it will negatively affect your score.

If you go...

Etihad flies daily from Abu Dhabi to Zurich, with fares starting from Dh2,807 return. Frequent high speed trains between Zurich and Vienna make stops at St. Anton.

Panipat

Director Ashutosh Gowariker

Produced Ashutosh Gowariker, Rohit Shelatkar, Reliance Entertainment

Cast Arjun Kapoor, Sanjay Dutt, Kriti Sanon, Mohnish Behl, Padmini Kolhapure, Zeenat Aman

Rating 3 /stars

UAE SQUAD

Muhammad Waseem (captain), Aayan Khan, Aryan Lakra, Ashwanth Valthapa, Asif Khan, Aryansh Sharma, CP Rizwaan, Hazrat Billal, Junaid Siddique, Karthik Meiyappan, Rohan Mustafa, Vriitya Aravind, Zahoor Khan and Zawar Farid.