Health chief flip-flops on support for stem cell treatment

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DOH Secretary Enrique Ona in a speech encourages stem cell procedures that don't have therapeutic guarantees, but says his stand on the matter is not final

CLARIFICATION. Health Secretary Enrique Ona writes to a newspaper that his published speech is not the final word on stem cell therapy regulation. File photo by Rappler/Naoki Mengua

MANILA, Philippines – Health Secretary Enrique Ona has clarified that his speech published in The Philippine Star as a full-page advertisement should not be misconstrued as the end-all, be-all pronouncement on the issue of stem cell therapy regulation.

The controversial speech categorized stem cell therapy as part of “innovative therapy,” whereas clinical trials or thorough drug testing locally may be evaded in the meantime for the sake of innovation. 

It was delivered by Ona on August 12, during the 1st mid-year convention of the Philippine Society for Stem Cell Medicine (PSSCM). The full-page ad appeared on August 14.

READ: Stem cell debate: innovation or safety?

The published copy of Ona’s speech was labeled with the words “Stem Cell: The Final Word.”

Ona, however, wanted to dispel “any confusion” caused by the advertisement’s label.

“In the keynote message, there was no mention or any insinuation that the said pronouncement was the ‘Final Word on Stem Cell’,” the health chief wrote the newspaper.

Not final

NOT THE FINAL WORD. Health Secretary Enrique Ona clarifies that his published speech is not the final word on the issue of stem cell therapy regulation.

Ona added that the agency is willing to consider various stances on the controversial therapy.

“The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) of the Department of Health is willing to listen to stakeholders to assess their positions on the issue of stem cell therapy,” he explained.


Earlier, the secretary was criticized for the content of his speech and for his pronouncement that has allowed in the meantime the conduct of the treatment even without the FDA’s approval of stem cell products.

On Thursday, August 15, Rep Paulino Salvador “Doy” Leachon of Oriental Mindoro’s 1st district called for Ona’s resignation unless the Cabinet official changes his stand. 

READ: Leachon asks Ona to resign over stem cell issue

When Rappler sought Ona for a comment on the congressman’s call, the health secretary’s office referred us to the PSSCM speech that Ona now says is not final.

Leachon also called for a congressional probe into the issue. The lawmaker’s brother, a Department of Health (DOH) consultant, resigned from his post in the agency at the height of the controversy as a sign of dissent to Ona’s stand of allowing stem cell treatment for unproven therapeutic purposes.

'NOT FIT AS DOH CHIEF.' Rep Paulino 'Doy' Leachon previously called for Enrique Ona's resignation over the DOH chief's pronouncement in his PSSCM speech allowing stem cell therapy without clinical trials for the sake of innovation. Photo by Rappler/Jom Tolentino

Who paid for the ad?

The full-page advertisement would have cost the DOH some P300,000. 

Dr Leo Olarte, Philippine Medical Association president and a prominent member of the PSSCM, said in a phone interview that he did not know who sponsored the publication of the speech.

Dr Oscar Tinio, current spokesperson of the PSSCM, denied allegations that their group paid for the advertisement. PSSCM is a network of stem cell transplant practitioners based in the Philippines.

Rappler tried to get in touch with the advertising department of The Philippine Star to clarify who paid for the advertisement but has received no reply as of posting time. 

The debate

The Philippine College of Physicians (PCP) maintains its stand, calling for a moratorium on all stem cell treatments until the FDA reviews all stem cell and stem cell-based products.

The PCP is among the 21 medical and surgical societies which called for stricter regulations on the conduct of stem cell therapy in the country. It also called for the suspension of stem cell transplant doctors who offer the treatment for unproven indications. 

READ: ‘Suspend deceptive stem cell transplant doctors’

In the closing of the health secretary’s speech, he said he looked forward to more discussion and “a happy resolution” of issues surrounding stem cell therapy.

“The challenge, I believe among us, seemingly competing forces, is to sit down and craft a path of consensus, taking in consideration the most fundamental tenet of why our profession exists: to save life, to alleviate pain, to do no harm,” the DOH chief said. –

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