Nebraska woman credits stem cell treatment for saving life, experts urge caution

LINCOLN, Neb. (KOLN) - Stem cell therapies and treatments have grown in popularity over the years as research has shown its benefits in helping people suffering from injuries and illnesses, but experts continue to warn patients of dangers.

Taylor Cochrane credits stem cell treatment with keeping her alive after a daunting small cell ovarian cancer diagnosis.

Stem cells are actually cells harvested from a person's body that can replicate other cells, and, according to the Food and Drug Administration can “repair, restore, replace, and regenerate cells.”

For Taylor Cochrane, treatment using stem cells was floated by her doctor during her battle with a rare form of ovarian cancer, called small cell ovarian cancer.

At the time, the Omaha lawyer and mother of two was going through several rounds of treatment, including chemotherapy.

"I didn't have these grand thoughts that I could be cured," Cochrane said. "I didn't know, but I wanted life after cancer and I was going to do anything I could to at least get that."

Two years later, Cochrane by and large credits the experimental treatment with keeping her alive.

She celebrated her second stem cell birthday August 25, which signifies the length of time since she's been in remission.

"Based on the data I've seen and then my own anecdotal experience when talking with other survivors, I do think it would have been different," Cochrane said. "I don't think I would be here if I didn't."

As it stands, stem cell therapy and treatment are both experimental, with bone marrow transplants being the only stem cell based treatment approved by the Food and Drug Administration.

The hope is that one day stem cells will allow doctors to provide treatment for a number of medical issues and illnesses, and while the research is not there yet, the FDA said it hasn’t stopped some stem cell clinics from falsely advertising the benefits of treatments.

Dr. Jim Turpen, a stem researcher and retired University of Nebraska Medical Center biologist, has dedicated much of his career to exploring how stem cells work.

"The potential is just going to revolutionize medicine, really," Turpen said. "It has a tremendous amount of potential."

But Turpen warned against miracle cures and promises that sound to good to be true.

"There's a lot that we have to learn before we just start injecting those cells into people and hoping for a better outcome," Turpen said.

The FDA has continued to warn against the marketing of stem cell procedures as having health benefits, since little research has been conducted and published. The FDA said some clinics have even falsely advertised that their treatments are reviewed by the agency.

In June, a federal judge granted the FDA an injunction against a Florida stem cell company accused of marketing bogus stem cell treatment.

"You don't want to be putting stuff into your body that hasn't been approved by the FDA is the bottom line, because you just don't know," Turpen said. "You really don't know."

In Lincoln, Premiere Orthopedics recently started offering stem cell injections, in addition to its other orthopedic services.

Dr. Thomas Harbert, an orthopedic surgeon certified in Nebraska said the focus of his clinic is on arthritic pain.

"Presently we're seeing patients right now for arthritic problems," Harbert said. "Shoulder, elbow, wrist, knee, hip."

He called the injections another option for patients, which have shown initial benefits.

"We don't guarantee, we don't have the knowledge to know if it will heal completely," Harbert said. "But we are having some positive benefits with reduced pain, reduced inflammation, better joint function."

He, along with Turpen, suggested people get information before seeking a stem cell procedure, as well as questioning the doctor.

"These stem cells, you don't really know that they're safe and you don't really know that they're going to do what they say they're going to do," Turpen said.

Cochrane, now in remission, says she’ll share her story of struggle and healing to anyone who will listen.

She understands the nature of concern from others looking into stem cell treatments or therapies, but said she would do it all over, if again, faced with her daunting cancer diagnosis.

"It provides hope," Cochrane said. "Hope is just the biggest thing. Hope that you can stay alive even until the next treatment."