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Stem Cell Tourism

By Michael Cook

Can a quick trip overseas for stem cell therapy really cure your diabetes and hair loss?

Google “stem cell cures” and the first entry will be a site that promises a “Breakthrough Treatment For Wide Range Of Medical Reasons”. It is a link to the Stem Cell Rejuvenation Center in Phoenix, Arizona, offering “cutting-edge procedures in adipose stem cell therapy”. In other words, they extract stem cells from your own fat and use them to cure… what exactly? It’s not clear, although a list of dozens of conditions on the home page, from autism to kidney failure to torn ligaments, suggests that miracles are happening every day.

If you want other options there is the Returning Hope Center in Bangkok, which spruiks treatments for multiple sclerosis, diabetes and stroke, along with hair restoration and breast augmentation. Or there’s the Wu Stem Cells Center in Beijing, which modestly claims to have successfully treated muscular dystrophy, epilepsy and dementia.

Clinics like these are multiplying around the world, a dark cloud over the boom in international medical tourism. And stem cell scientists are worried. Only a handful of treatments have been approved by government authorities for clinical use, yet doctors with little or no scientific credibility are already treating patients, often charging upward of US$20,000.

The International Society for Stem Cell Research is so distressed that it has set up a website to inform people about the true state of stem cell research and to hose down the blaze of patient hopes. “Stem cells offer hope, but we can’t take shortcuts to get there,” says Harvard researcher George Q. Daly, one of America’s leading advocates for stem cell research. And Irving Weissman of Stanford University warns: “These web sites that advertise stem cell therapies usually go way beyond what is proven scientifically”.

Doug Sipp, a former journalist with Nature who is now working at the RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology in Japan, goes even further. “I have been studying stem cell tourism for 3–4 years now, and the more I look at it, and the characters who become involved in this form of charlatanry, the more I see it as a serious crime. These are well-organized criminal organizations that target sick people and their families.

“The risks are appalling when you think about it,” he says, “not the least of which is the serious financial burden these charlatans exact on their patients. The lack of oversight means we have no idea what is being injected, either – we have already seen cases in which unscrupulous clinics gave people bovine cells or unsorted slurries of tissue from human fetal brain.”

But stem cell scientists themselves must shoulder some of the responsibility for this unscrupulous huckstering.

Nearly a decade ago, enthusiasm for embryonic stem cell research was boundless. It was depicted as a superhighway to miraculous cures for Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s, cancer, spinal cord injuries, diabetes and many more. The courage of a paralysed Superman, Christopher Reeve, symbolised the hope sparked by stem cell scientists. Hollywood stars linked arms to lobby for federal funding of embryonic stem cell research.

Nancy Pelosi, a powerful California politician, said that stem cells had “the biblical power to cure”. This sort of hype was the rule, not the exception, in the media. So it was no surprise when voters in California, a state with dysfunctional schools, prisons, roads and power grid, were persuaded to create the US$3 billion California Institute for Regenerative Medicine in a 2004 referendum.

Unfortunately, it is now clear that the scientists badly oversold stem cells in their eagerness to get funding for ethically contentious research into embryonic stem cells. Leading scientists urged caution in their journal articles at the time. But they were also careful not to dampen the fever of expectation. “People need a fairy tale,” NIH researcher Ronald McKay told the Washington Post in 2004. “Maybe that’s unfair, but they need a story line that’s relatively simple to understand.

Today, serious stem cell scientists are frantically trying to dampen the same hopes they inflamed a few years ago. An article published recently in EMBO Reports represents the new mood. In it, David B. Resnik and Zubin Master argue that stem cell researchers have the responsibility and means to help to prevent the exploitation of patients and health care systems since the clinics and physicians who offer such therapies need to obtain stem cells and other materials from basic researchers. Regulation, they contend, will not work.

Instead, they propose that responsible scientists could curb the abuse of stem cell research by checking the CV and background of researchers and physicians who ask for stem cell lines and by requiring Material Transfer Agreements.

It all seems very practical and achievable. But the genie was let out of the bottle back between 2002 and 2004. It’s doubtful whether it can ever be put back.

Michael Cook is editor of the bioethics newsletter BioEdge.