December 6, 2022

Closing the season for stem cell tourism

Nearly a decade ago, the media’s 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, symbolized the hope sparked by stem cell scientists.

Nearly a decade
ago, the media’s 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, symbolized the hope sparked by stem
cell scientists.

Unfortunately the
scientists may have oversold their research. Today, serious stem cell
scientists are frantically trying to dampen the same hopes they inflamed a few
years ago. An article published this week in EMBO reports represents the new mood, with two scientists
suggesting some practical measures for deflating a world-wide “stem cell
tourism” industry that sells false promises of miracle cures.

Stem cell research
is making considerable advances, but only a few stem cell based therapies have
so far been approved for clinical use. However, this has not stopped clinics in
countries ranging from China to Cyprus to the Dominican Republic from
exploiting patients’ desperation by advertising questionable clinical procedures.
Often charging upward of US$20,000, they offer stem cell treatments that are
unproven in clinical trials, are not approved by relevant authorities, and can
be dangerous. Many of these stem cell clinics have sprung up in countries with
lax regulation and oversight, which makes it difficult to stop stem cell
tourism legally.

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

It all seems very
practical and achievable. But the genie was let out of the bottle back in 2002
and 2003. It is going to cork it up again.

 

Michael Cook
embryonic stem cells
regulation
stem cell tourism