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TESS VIGELAND: If you’re saving for retirement, you know the importance of diversity. Stocks, bonds, mutual funds. Have you considered adding stem cells to your portfolio?
Well, one company wants to help you bank your own stem cells while you’re still healthy. If you get sick some day, you could make a life-saving withdrawal. From KPBS in San Diego, Andrew Phelps has the story.
ANDREW PHELPS: When you hear “stem cells,” you might think of the embryonic kind. Embryonic stem cells hold the power of new life.
But a different kind of stem cell holds a lot of promise – without all the controversy. Adult stem cells can become practically anything – skin, fat, muscle or brain. If something goes wrong in the body, these little cells jump in to repair the damage. For example, leukemia patients use stem cells to regenerate the immune system after chemo.
ROBIN SMITH: There’s over 200 clinical studies using autologous adult stem cells, looking at treatments for heart disease, autoimmune disorders, different issues in diabetes.
This is Dr. Robin Smith. She’s excited about how we might use adult stem cells in the future.
SMITH: We have no idea how far along science is gonna take us, but they’re looking at macular degeneration, blindness.
Those cures are still years away. Smith is the CEO of NeoStem, a company that lets you put your stem cells in the bank until science is ready for them. All you have to do is give some blood.
Meet Dr. Ron Rothenberg of Encinitas, Calif. He’s having his own stem cells collected.
RON ROTHENBERG: Let’s just get the pillow adjusted a little bit. Would you mind maybe getting that up a little bit?
We’re in a cramped room that’s normally used for Rothenberg’s acupuncture patients. He’s hooked up to two IV’s, one in each arm. That noisy machine is sifting out all the stem cells from Rothenberg’s blood, before sending it back into his veins. It’s like tediously panning for gold.
Three hours later, the cells are shipped out to NeoStem’s warehouse in Los Angeles. The company cryogenically freezes the cells for a set-up fee of about $6,000.
Rothenberg’s stem cells will stay pristine at around 300 below zero. NeoStem can store his cells for the rest of his life. That is, as long as he pays for it. Storage fees run about $400 a year.
ROTHENBERG: It’s a . . . it’s real health insurance, as opposed to talking about health insurance. It may be a very standard, you know, standard thing in medicine one day.
Rothenberg is 61 years old and still quite healthy. He works in anti-aging / regenerative medicine. He says aging is a disease.
ROTHENBERG: I mean, modern medicine is great, but it’s mostly reactive. But you know again, what can we do to stay way ahead of the curve? So this is a potential treatment for existing and I mean, even unknown, future uses.
FLOYD BLOOM: I don’t think it’s either monetarily, biologically or medically warranted.
This is Dr. Floyd Bloom. Bloom is a research scientist in San Diego and a stem-cell policy adviser to the White House. He thinks this is all just medical daydreaming.
BLOOM: We have, in Southern California, had a lot of tissue banks, from sperm banks of Nobel Prize-winners to cryogenic protection people of who are dead and think they can be brought back to life. I look at it as a kind of plastic surgery, a kind of quest for immortality, but it’s not really science.
Bloom admits adult stem cells could be used to cure diseases like Parkinson’s, but that’s at least 10 years down the road. He thinks it’s a waste of money to start saving cells now.
In San Diego, I’m Andrew Phelps for Marketplace Money.