Stem cell treatments are very promising. Bone marrow transplants are already widely used, and researchers are investigating stem cell treatments for a variety of conditions; but as yet there are few proven practical applications. I recently wrote about one stem cell treatment for age-related macular degeneration that stabilized the disease in a single patient and another that went awry and left three women blind (and see also David Weinberg’s discussion).
Enter Dr. Rand McClain. Forget about expensive surgeries and injections. Forget about finding and enrolling in clinical trials. He says you can boost your body’s own stem cell levels by taking his dietary supplement Vital Stem. He says it will improve cognitive function, enhance joint and muscle strength, increase longevity, and reverse the pesky changes of normal aging. He has testimonials. In a slick marketing video, he explains his remarkable new antiaging product. He says it takes old worn-out cells and replaces them with new ones, with astonishing results. He says thousands are already using this product to turn back the clock. He uses the product himself, and provides his own enthusiastic testimonial.
Who is Rand McClain?
When I hear about a new breakthrough in stem cell or anti-aging treatment (or, for that matter, any new medical breakthrough), one of my first questions is who is making the claim? Is he an expert in the field? Has he published clinical research? Is he a credible source of information?
Rand McClain is a DO who runs a Regenerative Medicine clinic in California. The video claims he is one of the world’s top physicians, featured on talk shows and in magazines. It says people wait months to get an appointment with him. His clients include top athletes and some of the richest people in America. Good for him. But that says nothing about his credibility as a source of scientific information.
He says he has studied the causes of aging for over a decade, not just in the lab, but with thousands of his patients (elsewhere in the video he says hundreds). According to his Bio, his research experience consists only of a two-year (2001-3) stint as a research assistant where his job was to “collect and maintain data” related to a potential treatment for osteoporosis. He gave two presentations at an Epilepsy Foundation Conference in 2002 related to epilepsy treatment: one on Traditional Chinese Medicine and one on exercise and nutrition. I searched PubMed and found no articles by McClain R or McClain RS on any subject relating to stem cells or aging.
I am not convinced that he is an expert we can trust to provide credible information about stem cells or anti-aging. But that doesn’t mean we can dismiss his claims.
What is he claiming?
McClain says “stem cell tourists” have to travel to other countries for “secret” expensive experimental stem cell treatments because stem cell research was banned in the US. (Demonstrably not true. Federal funding for embryonic stem cell research was banned, but not private funding, and not research on non-embryonic stem cells, which is thriving). He says people are being denied these treatments in the US; only millionaires can afford to go to other countries for treatment at some of the most expensive clinics in the world. So he developed an alternative: a product that he makes available at affordable cost to everyone. Recounting two success stories, he implies that the experimental stem cell injections and surgeries those patients got are established, effective treatments. They are not. Their effectiveness has not been established, and there are associated risks. He describes stem cell research for various conditions and vastly over-represents the results of what are actually just preliminary studies. He claims that “stem cells have already been used to heal thousands and thousands of people with serious illness.” That is true, but almost all of those were hematopoietic stem cell transplants to re-constitute bone marrow in patients with leukemia and multiple myeloma after the patient’s own bone marrow had been destroyed by radiation and chemotherapy. He claims that treatments involving adult stem cells are perfectly safe; they are clearly not. There are many examples of harm, including the three women who were recently left blind.
He describes how a cut on the skin heals: the injured cells are replaced by new, healthy cells. He says his product can increase healing processes ten times in all parts of the body (!?). But most of the people he treats are not even sick; they’re regular people in good health who want to optimize their health. Some are pro athletes.
He says drug companies are “terrified” by the prospect of competition. He admonishes viewers of his video to share the information quickly, because he is “told this video may soon be taken down by the major search engines [because] corporate lobbyists will do everything in their power to keep you from seeing it.” Really?
He says our body’s own stem cells circulate in the body and know to go to wherever they are needed to repair cells damaged by trauma, illness, or aging. That’s a combination of oversimplification and falsehood. Then he contradicts himself by quoting a researcher who says, “The ability to direct stem cells to differentiate into rare cell types means that potentially any cell type in the body can now be replaced.” Potentially. We don’t yet have that ability to direct.
He says the American lifestyle destroys stem cells. As supporting evidence, he cites a study about how toxins in cigarette smoke prevent stem cells from becoming cartilage.
He claims that a decrease in stem cells is one of the primary causes of aging. Maybe, but that’s far from established, and is not even mentioned in most discussions of aging. He tells us we begin life with between 6 and 7 trillion stem cells. The numbers decrease as we get older; he blames this on nutritional and lifestyle factors.
What’s in Vital Stem?
- Vitamin D, 2000 IU (500% DV)
- Blueberry fruit
- Green tea leaf extract
The amounts of the last four ingredients are not individually specified. They are in a proprietary blend that contains 1,400 mg total.
It comes as a powder: mix one scoop into a 12-oz. glass of water. Only 10 calories a serving. Use once daily. Container lasts 30 days. Money-back guarantee (less S&H). It will cost $89.95 when they have the volume to offer it in stores. Savings of $40 or more if you respond to the video in 24 hours and if supplies last. It could cost you as little as $2 a day. Buy more at once to get a better price.
Has Vital Stem been scientifically tested?
No. Neither Vital Stem nor the particular combination of five nutrients has been tested to see if it produces clinically significant effects.
There is some evidence for benefits from individual components of this mixture. For instance, a randomized controlled trial of L-carnosine in Gulf War Illness found an increase in IQ but not in other parameters. The evidence is preliminary and it has not been established that the benefit is related to an increase in stem cells.
There is some evidence that nutrients can increase the number of stem cells and can act synergistically. For instance, this study found that a combination of blueberry, green tea, catechin, carnosine, and vitamin D3 promoted proliferation of hematopoietic stem cells in vitro. Most of the supporting research is in mice and cell cultures; there is little evidence from clinical studies in humans.
McClain describes a study, presumably an unpublished study of his own patients, where a group of volunteers between the ages of 40 and 75 used Vital Stem for 6 months. After only 2 weeks,
- 93% said their bodies felt stronger.
- 73% had less joint pain.
- 80% had less muscle pain.
- 93% reported having more energy.
- 87% reported having more motivation.
- 87% were thinking more clearly.
- 67% said their memory had significantly improved.
- 93% had much less fatigue.
- 73% said their skin looked smoother.
- 87% said they wanted to exercise more.
- 93% said they felt Vital Stem would help them live healthier and longer.
This is not credible evidence. What’s wrong with it?
- No control group! We don’t know whether they might have reported the same improvements after taking a sugar pill.
- No objective results, only subjective reports from patients, the kind of reports that might be expected from patients experiencing a placebo response and motivated to please a charismatic doctor. It’s more like a collection of testimonials.
- He doesn’t tell us how long these reported improvements lasted. It was a six-month study and he only describes the results at two weeks.
- Methodology not described. Were the patients prompted by questions like “have you noticed more energy?”
- Not published in a peer-reviewed journal where other researchers could critique it.
Conclusion: Questions remain
- If you take Vital Stem, will you feel better? Probably. But then people who take placebos or use any charlatan’s snake oil are likely to feel better, especially if they believe they will work.
- Does it work better than a sugar pill? We don’t know, and there is only one way to find out: test it against placebo in a blinded, randomized, controlled trial.
- Does the product as formulated significantly increase the body’s production of stem cells? Again, we can’t know until it has been properly tested.
- If it increases stem cell production, does that translate to clinically significant improvement in objective measures of health? Again, no way to know without testing.
- Does it reverse the signs and symptoms of normal aging? Will it make you live longer? Maybe, but I will remain skeptical until I see some credible evidence.