Stem cells are very fashionable right now. They sound good: what’s not to like about a ‘master’ cell that can help repair bodily damage by creating new cells, and can be used to treat illnesses such as leukaemia? So people are inclined to think that anything involving them must be good.
But a couple of research scientists I’ve spoken to are warning that people with multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s and other conditions are being misled by “thoroughly reprehensible” claims about products that supposedly generate stem cells.
The claims are made on several New Zealand and Australian websites that sell products based on bovine colostrum, a substance produced by cows immediately after birth to feed their young.
The sites claim that bovine colostrum can fight severe illnesses – including multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and muscular dystrophy – by encouraging the body to produce more stem cells.
One website, Turangi-based Colostrum4Health, sells products such as 60 capsules of ‘Colostem Generation 2 Stem Cell Release’ for $96.23. The company boasts of its “synergistic formulation” and claims the product promotes a “stem cell cascade”.
Alan Simmons, the owner of Turangi-based Colostrum4Health, acknowledged to me that the link between colostrum and stem cells “is not proven to the scientific community, because there hasn’t been blind studies done, I suppose”.
He said there were “dozens and dozens of people who are walking examples of the product’s benefits”, adding: “You try to tell them that [there’s no link] and they will be furious.”
However, Auckland University’s Dr Bronwen Connor, an associate professor of pharmacology and stem cell researcher, says there has been no research published that shows colostrum boosts stem cell growth or combats major illness.
There is “absolutely nothing” behind any claims linking colostrum with stem cell growth, she says.
Her warnings are echoed by Dr Michelle McConnell, who researches colostrum at Otago University. “Nothing, to my knowledge, has been done in humans as a double-blind randomised trial to prove any of the claims being made by these internet-based companies,” she says.
“Personally, I think it’s thoroughly reprehensible, giving false hope to people with these conditions.”
Another site, the Colostrum New Zealand blog, claims: “The science is proven – the more Adult Stem Cells (Repair kits) you have circulating in your bloodstream the better chance your body will have in time to repair its self.” The site also says colostrum can help fight multiple sclerosis and other conditions.
However, Dr Connor is bemused by the ‘bloodstream’ claim. “What do they actually mean? We don’t necessarily want them [stem cells] floating around in the bloodstream. We want them targeted to the site of repair,” she says. “It [the claim] actually doesn’t mean anything to us scientifically.”
New Image, the New Zealand company that supplies Colostrum4Health and Colostrum New Zealand, says its products are only “dietary supplements” and that websites are not allowed to make “therapeutic” claims about the products.
When I was looking into the subject last year, a spokeswoman told me that New Image would warn websites about their claims “as soon as our internal assessment of the material on them is complete.
“If we do not receive a response to our warnings we will stop selling our product to any person connected with the offending website.”
The Ministry of Health, which I also contacted last year, said it would be in touch with companies promoting colostrum-based products, which could be in breach of the Medicines Act if they made claims they could not justify.
However, Colostrum4Health and Colostrum New Zealand continue to make claims about their products’ therapeutic powers and ability to fight degenerative diseases.
Australian-based websites also promote the supposed stem cell-enhancing properties of colostrum. John Gaudio, who runs New South Wales-based Colostrum Immunity, told me his products help fight major illnesses, insisting there was “so much science there, you’d have to be blind not to see it”.
He also claimed that a derivative of colostrum “is treating AIDS right now” and that colostrum “has been accepted in Kenya as a medicine”.
Setting these claims aside, Dr Connor says people won’t harm themselves by taking colostrum, but she’s worried it might be the first step on the way to genuinely dangerous ‘stem cell’ treatments.
A controversial German clinic, the XCell-Center, was shut down in 2010 after an 18-month-old boy died following an injection of stem cells into his brain. The clinic was promoted by the Adult Stem Cell Foundation, an Australian organisation linked to by some of the colostrum sites.
“The concern I have is that people start on these things [colostrum products], having misunderstood what stem cells are, and then progress onto unproven clinical treatments, and waste a whole lot of money in the process,” Dr Connor says.
“These clinics … are absolutely preying on people that are at a very vulnerable stage. They are going down very dangerous lines.”