As the burden of disease increases in the world, hundreds of patients continue to seek cures for various illnesses, sometimes in unconventional medical solutions. One of these is stem cell therapy, a medical field which has seen significant progress from the research breakthroughs since 1968, when the first bone marrow transplant was successfully done. As a result, there is a lot of hope in stem cell research because of its potential for the treatment of many life-threatening ailments.

The global stem cell market is projected to reach 120 billion US dollars by 2018. But as this industry grows, so do chancers, advertising ‘miracle’ cures and enticing their victims with the promise that stem cells hold.

To date, the only other proven stem cell treatments besides bone marrow transplants, are skin grafts, treatments for blood immune disorders, leukemia and corneal disease. But, because of the gap in the laws governing stem cell treatments, other people have seen a way to make a quick buck, taking advantage of desperate patients with life-threatening ailments, which in many cases are currently incurable. Our investigation also shows that some doctors act unethically in violation of their professional oath by giving false hope to patients, claiming to treat many illnesses through stem cell therapies, when there is no scientific evidence of their efficacy. Unproven therapies damage the reputation of stem cell research and with every horror story in the media, the public becomes more skeptical.

This week Special Assignment reveals the horrible experience of 12 year-old Nicole Padayachee, who was born with spinal muscle atrophy type 2. This is an incurable degenerative disease which led her parents to go as far as China to seek stem cell treatment with the hope that it would cure her. After spending thousands of rands, Nicole is still not cured and instead, her health has deteriorated. “The reason people jump the gun in these types of settings is because they are emotionally vulnerable”, says Dr. Michael Pepper, Director of the Institute of Cellular and Molecular Medicine. This is confirmed by Melanie Skeen, a physiotherapist who conducted research on unethical stem cell treatments, adding that there have been a lot of charlatans in the industry that have been offering stem cell therapies for spinal cord injuries.

In this episode we expose this problem and investigate a beauty clinic which promotes stem cell therapy which claims to treat many diseases. We also confront the people behind these claims about their questionable practices.

Watch “STEM CELLS: HOPE OR HYPE?” produced by Lindile Mpanza. It will be broadcast on Special Assignment – aired Sundays on SABC 3 at 20:00PM.