Stem Cell Tourism: A Cautionary Tale
Regenerative medicine is a game-changing field that’s full potential is only just now beginning to come to light. If you follow the news about stem cell treatments, it feels like some new, incredible application has been uncovered. Either a star athlete has recovered from a huge trauma or a brand new study has observed an unexpected, wonderful result that could save countless lives.
When faced with headlines like these, it’s easy to get swept up in the misconception that stem cells preform “miracles.” Unfortunately, medical science takes time. In the United States, a new drug can take approximately 12 years to go from a laboratory experiment to a commercially available medication.
When you are healthy, it is easy to understand why this process is so lengthy. Researchers need to ensure they can consistently achieve a result in a safe manner, both in a lab setting and with real people. When you are suffering from chronic pain or an illness that is ultimately fatal, however, this can sound like researchers are asking you to wait a century.
It is completely understandable that, when presented with hope, people in these situations are desperate to take advantage. Sadly, this provides an opening for predators to take advantage of people who are in desperate need of medical help. In recent years, as the media sensationalizes stories about “miracle” stem cell treatments, more and more people have placed their hopes in less than credible sources. This is a growing issue that needs to be addressed.
What is stem cell tourism?
Stem cell tourism refers to when patients travel abroad to get stem cell treatments that would not be available to them in their home countries. Since regenerative medicine is a young field, different countries are at different places in their development and regulation of stem cell therapies. Certain techniques may be unheard of in one country, unregulated in another, and illegal in a third. As far as stem cell therapy goes, there are few things currently considered universal.
What are the dangers of stem cell tourism?
While patients are often good-intentioned, stem cell tourism places already ill or injured people at risk by circumventing regulations put in place to prevent them from harm. Sometimes, it may simply be that one country is accepting of a risk that another would consider too hazardous.
The real risk, however, is that the stem cell surgery is a complete hack job, performed by con-artists only seeking financial gain. In these situations, patients can find themselves worse off than they were originally, both physically and financially.
Jim Gass is one such case. In the hopes of recovering from a stroke, Mr. Gass spent almost $300,000 travelling to unregulated clinics in Mexico, China and Argentina for stem cell therapy. Stories of professional athletes like John Brodie recovering using stem cell injections inspired him to travel for stem cell therapy.
Unfortunately, Mr. Gass’ story did not involve a miracle recovery. Instead, he developed a mass that filled the entire lower portion of his spinal column where he’d received the unregulated injections. When a surgeon attempted to remove it, he found that “it was stuck to everything around it.” The bloody tissue was unlike naturally occurring tumors and could not be resolved with surgery. Radiation temporarily slowed down the growth temporarily but the improvement has been limited.
What regulations are in place for stem cell treatments in the United States?
In order to qualify as low risk, there are four criteria for human cell, tissues, and cellular and tissue-based products must meet.
- Minimal manipulation: manufacturing is limited to simple procedures.
- Advertised/labeled for homologous use only: products must carry out the same biologic function as it normally would.
- Non-combination product: combining products increases complexity, so the product cannot be combined with another product, with the exception of simple electrolyte solutions and preservation agents.
- Non-systemic effect or is autologous: If the product may have a systemic effect, it must be autologous or from a close blood relative, in order to reduce the risk of an immune reaction.
Products that meet all four criteria are regulated under section 361 of the Public Health Service Act and are sometimes referred to as 361 products.
Where does stem cell tourism occur?
Stories about stem cell tourism frequently involve patients flying to countries like China, Russia, Latin America, or Mexico. Surprisingly, however, Australia has the most stem cell businesses advertising online. The treatments they are advertising often lack evidence of being safe or effective. Currently, people are calling on the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) to rectify the loophole that allows them to promote ineffective or actively harmful treatments.
The websites associated with these advertisements are intentionally vague, remaining unclear on what they can treat and how. While these sites do not stand up to scrutiny, they intentionally target individuals who are desperate for any option and therefore less prone to questioning the information presented to them.
Unfortunately, while stem cell tourism is often considered a problem plaguing foreign countries, patients should be aware that predatory “clinics” exist in the United States as well. Paul Knoepfler, a stem cell scientist at UC Davis, and Leigh Turner, a bioethicist at the University of Minnesota, identified 570 clinics offering stem cell “interventions” to consumers around the united states.
How do I tell who is legit?
Don’t let these frightening stories prevent you from exploring your options. What matters most is that you properly research and understand what you are signing up to receive.
When you are considering seeking a doctor for stem cell injections, first investigate who you are visiting. Any legitimate medical organization will be forthcoming with information about their doctor’s accomplishments. For instance, you can meet the medical team at the Stem Cell Orthopedic Institute of Texas at this link. Before trusting someone with your health, feel free to learn about their qualifications and professional accomplishments. If the clinic you are considering using is hesitant to discuss their doctors’ histories, there is probably a reason!
Once you are comfortable with the doctors, look into what treatments they offer. A legitimate medical establishment will have no issue explaining what they are planning to do and why they’ve chosen to treat your pain the way they are. Unless you are in a clinical trial, the procedure you are receiving should be open for discussion. You can check your doctor’s website for a procedure overview or ask them in person.