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A stem cell booster from the supplements world: too good to be true?

April 9, 2010 |  5:29 pm

Impressed with how well your (insert any nutritional supplement here) supports your metabolic function, your bone, brain, breast or prostate health, your energy level? The Journal of Translational Medicine -- an open-access publication of the respected British medical publisher BioMedCentral -- this week carries a study involving a natural-products concoction that might kick your nutritional supplement's butt. The study suggests that a product containing a fermented combination of green tea, astralagus, goji berry extracts and the kinds of live cultures found in yogurt significantly boosted circulating levels of the kinds of reparative stem cells produced by bone marrow.

Those stem cells play a key role in the body's effort to heal itself in the wake of tissue injury. But cancer doctors have known for decades they can also be mobilized and harvested, and used to rebuild the immune system of a patient who's undergone aggressive chemo and/or radiation therapy. To do that, either the patient herself or a matched stem-cell donor must undergo a course of medication -- "stimulating factor" -- to increase production of those hematopoietic stem cells and send them out into the bloodstream, where they can be captured.

But that medication is very costly, and its use over time can increase a person's risk of blood clots. Perhaps a cocktail of cheap ingredients found in plants and everyday foods could do the same thing more cheaply and safely? This study suggests there may be at least one that can.

"To our knowledge, this is the first study demonstrating profound mobilization effect with possible clinical significance by a food supplement-based approach," the authors wrote, after demonstrating that 14 days of supplementation with Stem-Kine, by several measures, increased production of hematopoietic stem cells and their appearance in the bloodstream of subjects. 

Too good to be true, as so many accounts of nutritional supplements are? It surely does not inspire confidence that the study was supported in part with a grant from the maker of the supplement, and that the lead author, who designed the experiment, interpreted data and prepared the manuscript, is a shareholder of the company that makes the stuff.

It also doesn't help that the authors acknowledge that "the mechanism" of this mobilization of stem cells "remains unknown" -- or that they don't openly wonder which of this busy cocktail's many ingredients might be active in affecting that mobilization.

But publication by BioMedCentral does confer some respectability on this study. So does the final line of the study: After suggesting that the nutritional supplement-stem cell link might "offer significant benefit in treatment of a wide variety of degenerative diseases," the authors write this: "Given commercial pressures associated with this largely unregulated field, we propose detailed scientific investigations must be made before disease-associated claims are made by the scientific community." 

-- Melissa Healy