Bioethics Blogs

Blinded by the Promise of Stem Cell Treatments

Alan F. Cruess cautions against the use of unproven stem cell ‘treatments.’


Recently, many of you may have read about three patients who are blind after receiving stem cell ‘treatments.’  The patients were ‘treated’ at a Florida clinic for age-related macular degeneration. This common eye condition is the leading cause of vision loss among people over the age of 50. The clinic harvested stem cells from the patients using liposuction and then injected these stem cells into their eyes. Again, these three patients, are now all blind as a result of this unproven ‘treatment.’

There are two types of age-related macular degeneration: ‘wet’ and ‘dry.’ In recent years, treatment of wet macular degeneration has been transformed by new drugs which can be very effective if they are applied early. Meanwhile, treatment of the more common dry macular degeneration remains elusive. As such, patients with dry macular degeneration may be desperate to prevent and reverse blindness and willing to try emerging regenerative therapies.

Some experimental stem cells treatments to prevent blindness are promising, and they are being studied worldwide in laboratories and highly regulated clinical trial settings. In these settings, the safety and efficacy of experimental treatments can be closely monitored. Yet, the safety and efficacy should be called into question when these so-called ‘treatments’ are marketed outside of the research context. This was the case at the Florida clinic.

Before subjecting oneself or a loved one to any new ‘treatment’ with stem cells patients should be informed about the risks and potential benefits of the proposed treatment.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.