Stem cell research in embryonic stage for most treatments

Stem cells really do promise to bring a whole new dimension to the treatment of a wide spectrum of diseases. But for the present, there is just too much hype, over-expectation, speculation and exploitation ("Stem cell 'cure' gives him tumour"; last Friday).

While millions of haematopoietic stem cell treatments for blood-related cancers like leukaemia have been carried out for decades with proven efficacy, stem cell treatments for most other conditions are still in their embryonic research stage.

Yet we have clinics, mainly in neighbouring countries, promising fantastical cures for patients with conditions ranging from heart disease and diabetes to cancer and osteoarthritis. Some even promise the reversal of ageing.

Backed only by testimonials from patients and a whole wad of anecdotal evidence, such stem cell treatments entice the desperate and credulous patient.

In truth, many such treatments presently do give temporary placeboic improvements, while the long-term implications and complications will surface over time.

And for the fortunate who have responded well to the nascent technology, they are the guinea pigs on whom further successes will depend.

Patients are forewarned that where stem cell treatments are unregulated, it is moot whether they are actually receiving genuine cells which have been cleared of disease, even without considering the near- and long-term side effects of the therapy.

It is comforting to know that in Singapore, the medical authorities allow the adoption of cutting-edge medical technology only after most of the wrinkles have been ironed out through extensive bona fide research done by the rest of the world and the results vindicated by publication in established journals.

Yik Keng Yeong (Dr)

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 04, 2016, with the headline 'Stem cell research in embryonic stage for most treatments'. Print Edition | Subscribe