Stem Cell Tourism

Episode: 
84

The State Department issues travel warnings  for countries  that are risky for US tourists. Maybe we need travel warnings  of a different  kind: for stem cell tourism.  Recently,  CNN featured  the story of a 6-year- old boy named Cash whose parents  took him to India for experimental stem cell injections. Cash has a rare genetic  disease  that made him unable  to talk, and requiring braces to walk. After the treatment, Cash began walking without  braces for the first time, which his parents’  attribute  to his stem cell treatment.[1]

Cash’s  story made waves, but not because  unethical  embryonic  stem cells were used. His treatmentwas unregulated, which means it is not monitored by a research  or government agency  such as the FDA. Reputable  doctors  and scientists of all ethical  viewpoints  agree that the marketing and use of unregulated stem cell treatments is the wrong way of going about stem cell research.  Unfortunately, stem cell tourists ignore the warnings, visiting  private  clinics  in places such as India,  Germany  and Israel.

What is the evidence  of success  from these treatments? Only patient  testimonials.  Very few clinics  offer any form of reliable  evidence,  such as peer-reviewed clinical  trials  to support  their dubious  claims.   Their promises of “rapid recovery” prey on the desperation of the seriously  ill, leading to charges  that they’re selling “high tech snake oil.” Desperate  parents  and patients spend anywhere from $5,000 to $40,000  dollars  for these risky treatments.

Where embryonic  stem cells are not used, the most significant concern  about these experimental treatments is patient safety. Even well proven stem cell therapies  can result in tumor formation, immune rejection, disability, or even death. These unregulated clinics are not required  to report bad outcomes. Occasionally a report surfaces, like the nine-year-old boy who developed  brain tumors  after a fetal stem cell transplant in Russia.[2] There are no guarantees of the purity of the cells, or that each dosage is the same.  When the family returns  home from abroad, there is no follow-up for potential complications.

Meanwhile, there are legitimate clinical  trials  of ethical  stem cell therapies  being conducted  in the US and abroad.  That’s where success  is substantiated. Of course we sympathize with these little patients  and their parents  who try these questionable treatments as a “last  resort.” Unfortunately, scientists have yet to prove the golden  promise  of embryonic  stem cells’  curative  powers.  Michael  J. Fox, a national  advocate  of embryonic stem cell research  for Parkinson’s disease,  recently  made headlines  when he admitted  that a cure may not come from stem cells after all.[3] Unregulated treatments can be wrong on two counts:  they might  involve  the intentional destruction of embryos  and fetuses. Second, they don’t meet credible  standards of safety and effectiveness. Don’t believe every stem cell tourism  ad you read about a “miracle cure.” Many of them are selling hope, not healing.

 

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1 David Fitzpatrick and Drew Griffin, “Family Hangs on Hope for Boy on Unproven Therapy in India,” CNN, May 21, 2012, http://www.cnn.com/2012/05/19/health/embryonic-stem-cell-therapy/index.html (accessed May 30, 2012).

2 N. Amariglio, A. Hirshberg, B.W. Scheithauer, et al., “Donor-Derived Brain Tumor Following Neural Stem Cell Transplantation in an Ataxia Telangiectasia Patient,” PLoS Medicine  6 (2009): e1000029.

3 Russell Goldman, “Michael J. Fox Looks Past Stem Cells in Search For Parkinson’s Cure,” ABC News, May 18, 2012, http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/health/2012/05/18/michael-j-fox-looks-past-stem-cells-in-search-for-parkinsons-cure/ (accessed May 30, 2012).

 

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