By Cory Cotten-Potter


Can the concept of hope, the desire or wish for a positive, potential event or circumstance, be considered a good in and of itself?


I think that most would agree with me in saying that hope is a necessary part of human life.  As the French philosopher Jean-Marie Guyau once said, “When we hope…we draw from the beauty of the goal the courage to brave all obstacles.”  However, hope in relation to chronic and/or terminal illness, and emerging stem cell interventions, offered by stem cell clinics in the U.S. and abroad, becomes a muddled and controversial concept.


There are currently clinics that market stem cell interventions as proven therapies to individuals afflicted by incurable conditions, such as spinal cord injuries, Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, and others.  One of the biggest problems with these interventions is how they are marketed to desperate patients, patients that have been given no hope of a cure within the confines of scientifically- proven medicine.  There is also some evidence to suggest that the interventions could be dangerous.  Perhaps, the most frightening consequences of stem cell interventions, in terms of future development, is the damage that they are doing to reputable, scientific research.  Human stem cell research often gets pulled into negative publicity alongside stem cell clinics, potentially impacting public opinion and future life saving medical advances.


These clinics market stem cell interventions, which often include the harvesting of an individual’s own stem cells and injecting them into a different part of the patient’s body, not as unproven interventions but as scientifically-proven therapies.  However, there is insufficient empirical evidence to support this.  Adult stem cell therapies have only proved effective for a very limited number of diseases, having success in the areas of fighting breast cancer and restoring bone marrow functionality.


Also, at the moment, there is no effective means of blocking the clinics themselves.  The FDA has filed one Federal injunction against a U.S. clinic, but the clinic maintains that since the stem cells come from the patients’ own bodies the interventions do not fall under the FDA’s jurisdiction; the legal outcome remains uncertain.


It appears that if there is hope to be found in these stem cell clinics and their interventions, it is a false hope, more akin to a placebo than actual medical care.

Yet, to attempt to block an individual’s access to such therapies, before all of the facts are in, seems premature.  After all, the placebo effect has been well documented and there are even studies that suggest that placebos given without deception may also be effective.


While these stem cell clinics may seem predatory in nature, mostly relying upon patient testimonials to elicit tens of thousands of dollars from desperate men and women, when it comes to something as subjective and elusive as an individual’s relationship to hope and the impact that this has upon an individual’s life, we must simply take a step back.


This hope, albeit false, potentially dangerous hope, may prove extremely liberating to some, allowing them to regain a sense of control or comfort and ultimately giving them a better quality of life for the time they have left.   False hope may be an integral part of hope itself, an important element of the human condition, and consequently something that should be treated with caution.   As Francis Bacon once said, ‘if flattering hopes, false valuations, and imaginations as one would, were removed from the minds of men, many would end up poor shrunken things full of melancholy and indisposition.’


In the end, the subject of hope, the terminally ill, and stem cell interventions is a complicated one, and the greater part of the facts are not in; therefore the jury should remain out.  The best option at this point is to provide the public with accurate information regarding these stem cell clinics and their interventions, and to support independent organizations attempting to do the same.  While, striving to uphold clear distinctions between stem cell interventions and stem cell research.

Cory Cotten-Potter is an undergraduate student at St. John’s College, and has joined the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics as an intern for this summer. His interests include moral philosophy, neuroscience, and public policy.

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Cory Cotten-Potter

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