This story portrays a quadriplegic man who believes a stem cell transplant helped him to recover partial function after a spinal cord injury. The story effectively conveys the devastation of spinal cord injuries and correctly identifies stem cell therapy as an experimental and unproven treatment.
However, its thrust that the therapy “shows promise” is misleading; its efficacy has yet to be supported by rigorous trials. The story doesn’t give data on costs, harms, and availability that might have injected balance into the piece. We’ve reviewed other stories that unfairly wow readers up front only to save caveats for the end, including a recent BuzzFeed piece on an experimental device that restored some function to a paralysis patient. But in this case, the story also perpetuates a trend of media coverage that hypes unproven stem cell therapies for various conditions, unfairly raising patient expectations based on isolated and preliminary findings.
About 282,000 people in the U.S. are estimated to be living with spinal cord injuries, mainly from vehicle collisions and falls, according to the National Spinal Cord Injury Statistical Center. Spinal cord injuries can be incomplete, meaning that patients retain some motor or sensory function below the injury, or complete, in which there is a total lack of sensory and motor function below the level of injury. In either case, they almost always result in lifelong disability. Effective emergency care for people with spinal cord injuries and aggressive treatment and rehabilitation can minimize damage to the nervous system and restore some function. However, there is no treatment to repair spinal cord injuries.
Stem cells are an active area of research for spinal cord repair, but their potential and associated risks are not clear. According to the Canadian Stem Cell Foundation, stem cells are being studied as a source of new cells and products that could prevent further damage, restore nerve function, generate new nerve cells and guide the regrowth of severed nerve fibers. It says current trials are very small, mostly testing the safety of putting adult stem cells into patients. The question of whether stem cells can safely improve function is years away from being answered.
Meanwhile, there’s growing concern about media reports that exaggerate the potential of stem cell therapies that are in early phases of research. This month the International Society for Stem Cell Research issued guidelines to encourage accurate and balanced communication of stem cell science, including setbacks as well as progress.
The story does not address the cost of this procedure.
The story relies on comments from the patient, James Mason, and his doctor, Arthur Jenkins, M.D., a neurosurgeon at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. Mason is shown in video footage moving his arms and legs in physical therapy. Three months after surgery, he reports that his wrists have become stronger. Six months post-surgery, he says his improvement has “doubled,” sensation has returned to his feet and legs, and there’s slight movement in his hips. The physician, Jenkins, says: “My two cents is it worked that this actually changed his neurological recovery and function, that his actual functional improvement is from the stem cells that were injected.”
No data is presented to back up these statements. The narrator, CBS chief medical correspondent Jonathan LaPook, M.D., says the company sponsoring a trial of this therapy, which isn’t named, reported that four out of six patients it was following experienced improvement in motor strength and function. However, there are no measurements provided for any of these observed improvements.
If these patients are being followed as part of a trial, readers ought to know what outcomes the researchers are looking for (even if the trial isn’t complete as yet) and how they would objectively measure their improvement.
No harms are mentioned. Any surgical procedure presents a risk. Since clinical trials of stem cell procedures for spinal cord injury are just beginning, they carry a risk of unforeseen adverse effects.
The story presents a single anecdote as evidence of the benefits of stem cell transplants for spinal cord injury. It mentions that the case is part of a clinical trial with six patients, but does not give details such as the objective, sponsor, or limitations of the trial.
The story does not exaggerate the frequency or severity of this condition.
The story does tell viewers that the physician who performed the procedure “is not affiliated with the company” sponsoring the trial. However, it should have included an independent expert and named the trial sponsor.
There is no discussion of alternative therapies or avenues of research for spinal cord injuries.
The story states that the treatment is experimental, and correspondent LaPook acknowledges at the end, “More research will be needed to try to establish whether (stem cells) actually repair damage to the spinal cord.” But that strikes us as too little, too late. The story does not explain that it takes years to gain FDA approval for a new treatment, and many therapies particularly in the stem cell field never reach the finish line due to cost, safety, and efficacy hurdles.
The story does not misrepresent the novelty of the procedure.
However, we would have liked to read a bit more about how stem cells are being used (experimentally) for other related medical applications.
The story does not appear to rely on a news release.