July 6, 2021

How should we define a stem cell doctor?

How should we define a stem cell doctor?

Over the past half dozen or so years I’ve seen far more physicians describing themselves as a “stem cell doctor” or a “stem cell specialist.”

Is there such a thing?

Are they just saying that to attract and reassure potential customers getting unproven stem cell shots?

How should we define a stem cell doctor?
A stem cell infusion that should be done by a stem cell doctor. But what is a stem cell doctor exactly? Image of an IV bag of peripheral blood stem cells. Creative commons license.

What does Google think is a stem cell doctor?

If you search for “stem cell doctor” on Google you find starkly different results one after another.

First in the results from such a search (incognito mode) I see my own wonderful institution: UC Davis. We are doing loads of great stem cell research and UC Davis does have some CIRM-funded training related to stem cells.

But then there’s a stem cell clinic right after that in the Google search results.

Then we have the great Mayo Clinic.

Then another stem cell clinic is next in the results. And so on.

What’s going on? Things aren’t clear.

How should we define a stem cell doctor?
Rigorous physician training in stem cells and regenerative medicine. Would that make a stem cell doctor? From Knoepfler 2014 Regenerative medicine.

What is not a stem cell doctor

Seven years ago I proposed the need for residency training for physicians in stem cells and regenerative medicine. With only a few exceptions such training in a real, rigorous form, still does not exist.

Yet there are groups of physicians who seem to be aiming to project a sense of being in this space.

They put printed certificates of training courses on their walls. These courses sometimes literally are only hours long or maybe a golf weekend. And yet there on their office walls are these certificates from quickie courses next to their med school diplomas that they earned with years of hard work.

How should we define a stem cell doctor?

Ideally, we would only consider someone a “stem cell doctor” if they had extensive rigorous training somehow related to stem cells. The closest thing that is widely occurring is hematology/oncology (hem-onc) residency training for physicians. Hem-onc doctors’ training includes stem cell biology and transplantation. These physicians often do bone marrow and hematopoietic stem cell transplantation for patients with serious blood cancers. In my mind, these are stem cell doctors in at least part of their practices.

Should any other doctors qualify as stem cell doctors? It’s hard to say.

There are physicians out there who have been administering stem cells at clinics for a long time. They know a lot about stem cells and in some cases about transplantation. Still, oftentimes they are self taught, which raises the issue of who would train a stem cell doctor? You’d think it’d have to be another stem cell doctor, which again other than in the hem-onc realm don’t really happen much. Even the most experienced doctors at stem cell clinics may not get rigorous training in bioethics, FDA compliance, or other important areas.

Rigorous training

This all feeds back into the main point of this article that there is a dire need for training doctors in stem cells and regenerative medicine. Given the thousands of clinical trials going on, even if many fail, we are likely to see as much as a dozen stem cell-related therapies get approved in the next two decades. Who will be the doctors to do these procedures? Hem-onc doctors? What if the condition is not blood or cancer related? You can also imagine a team of doctors being involved.

Maybe some subspecialize or get a fellowship in stem cells or regenerative medicine?

I think that’d be a great thing if done right.

In my original 2014 article I recommended specific elements of such a training course which you can see in Box 1 above.

I hope we see more of such training.


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