Rogue Stem Cell Clinics Damage Global Health

Rick Johnson, for HealthLeaders Media, February 3, 2009

Discoveries from stem cell research could lead not only to breakthrough treatments for scores of conditions like diabetes, Parkinson's, heart disease, and multiple sclerosis, but they also holds the potential for unlocking how diseases manifest and could bring new preventive therapies to the masses.

Just days ago, the FDA approved the first human trial of an embryonic stem-cell therapy for 10 patients paralyzed by spinal cord injuries. This is exciting news for many who suffer with lifelong diseases or injuries. These poor souls are frustrated by the seemingly glacial pace of research and the political and religious debates that have limited federal funding.

Indeed, as Time magazine points out this week, many of today's leading stem cell scientists are conducting research abroad in Britain, Singapore, China, and other destinations where the government is more supportive and receptive. Thanks to modern technology these clinical researchers have networked across the globe to advance their discoveries well beyond the hype.

As legitimate and ethical research has emerged abroad, private stem cell clinics have also set up shop in countries friendly to their business. Numerous clinics around the world are aggressively marketing unproven and perhaps risky stem cell interventions directly to patients, according to the International Society for Stem Cell Research.

No one has figured out how many patients have sought stem cell therapy abroad, but experts suspect they number in the thousands. Far too many of these desperate people are paying thousands of dollars on stem cell injections based on empty promises and patient testimonials.

Concerned about the dangers posed by rogue stem cell clinics, last December the ISSCR released Guidelines for the Clinical Translation of Stem Cells, which includes a patient handbook on stem cell therapies.

ISSCR says the new guidelines were created by a multidisciplinary task force of stem cell researchers, clinicians, ethicists, and regulatory officials from 13 countries. The group warns: "The marketing of unproven stem cell interventions is especially worrisome in cases where patients with severe diseases or injuries travel across borders to seek treatments purported to be stem cell-based 'therapies' or 'cures' that fall outside the realm of standard medical practice. Patients seeking medical services abroad may be especially vulnerable because of insufficient local regulation and oversight of host clinics."

Private clinics that market stem cell tourism without real evidence these therapies work threaten more than just the patients they treat; they run the risk of casting the medical travel industry as a whole in the role of the snake oil salesman. Often in this space I discuss the rising demand for medical travel options, but ethical considerations of medical travel will continue to be debated for a long time to come.

Bottom line, the spirit of caveat emptor has no place in medical travel or the healthcare industry as a whole.

Rick Johnson is senior online editor of HealthLeaders Media. He may be reached at

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