Inside Mark Berman’s clinic in Rancho Mirage, California, is a sign he’s obliged by law to post. It reads “Not FDA Approved.”
Patients who come here to the California Stem Cell Treatment Center can get treatments for ailments ranging from sports injuries to muscular dystrophy. For upward of $5,000, Berman, a plastic surgeon by training, will remove a small portion of their fat, process it, and inject it back into them.
This is called “fat-derived stem cell therapy”; the premise is that the stem cells in your fat can jump-start the healing process. “The stem cells could be good for repairing everything from Alzheimer’s to paralysis to neurodegenerative conditions,” says Berman. “These cells are miraculous for helping heal. We don’t have a choice. We have to use them.”
The problem is there’s not much evidence to back up the claims Berman is making. And it’s not just him — there are more than 100 clinicians in the Cell Surgical Network, a group he co-founded in 2010 to promote the same kind of adult stem cell regenerative medicine he practices. According to a 2017 report by three Food and Drug Administration scientists in the New England Journal of Medicine looking at the benefits and risks of this kind of stem cell therapy, “This lack of evidence is worrisome.”
Fat-derived stem cells “may have a positive effect,” says Brad Olwin, a professor of molecular cellular and developmental biology at the University of Colorado Boulder with more than 30 years of experience working with stem cells. “They may be beneficial; it’s clearly a possibility. The problem is the research hasn’t been done.”
So little evidence exists, in fact, that the Department of Justice, on behalf of the FDA, is suing Berman’s clinic as well as a clinic in Florida for experimenting on patients with misleading products. The complaint was filed in May 2018 and the investigation is ongoing, according to the DOJ.
Given the popularity and abundance of these clinics nationwide, the FDA is also taking steps to modernize regulation in the field. But despite these efforts to streamline a path to legitimacy for stem cell clinics, unregulated medical procedures persist, at times leading to patient harm.