Paul Sancya/AP

Study Warns Against Unproven Stem Cell Treatments at Clinics Abroad

December 05, 2008 07:27 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
Stem cell experts say that there is a lack of medical evidence to back claims about stem cell treatments made on the Web sites of overseas facilities.

Clinics’ Web Sites “Dangerous”

The clinics claim that their stem cell therapies are effective and safe for widespread use, but there is a lack of published research to support that “overoptimistic” outlook, according to a study released Wednesday in the journal Cell Stem Cell by scientists at Canada's University of Alberta.

“I think these Web sites are dangerous,” Dr. George Daley, past president of the International Society for Stem Cell Research, told the Associated Press. “They overpromise effectiveness and safety of the therapy and they completely underestimate and underinform about risks. … [Such] overhyped marketing directly to the patient is putting patients at risk of financial exploitation at the very least, and physical danger at the worst.”

Researchers reviewed studies where patients have used stem cell treatments to treat medical ailments commonly mentioned by the Web sites, including multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases, spinal cord injury, stroke and heart attack, and found no clear evidence of benefit. All of the Web sites studied promoted treatments that are offered at clinics abroad, in countries such as China, Mexico and Russia, except for one that did not specify a location.

The study’s authors criticize the “direct-to-consumer” approach of the Web sites and estimate that the average cost of the overseas therapies, based on information from four different Web sites, is $21,500, not including travel and accommodation for patients and care givers.

Stem cells, which are the body’s master cells from which all cell types in the body arise, come in a variety of forms, from bone marrow cells to embryonic stem cells.

Related Topic: In defense of unproven stem cell therapies

While researchers remain skeptical, some consumers say that new and unproven stem cell therapies have worked for them.

In July, The Toronto Star chronicled the case of Penticton, British Columbia, resident Inga MacVicar, who claims that an unorthodox treatment to restore life to atrophied or lifeless limbs using injections of human embryonic stem cells offered in India cured her back condition.

MacVicar was four years old when she fell off of a barn roof and and has endured constant physical discomfort for more than five decades. After doctors at home and abroad were unable to help her, she enlisted the help of Dr. Geeta Shroff of NuTech MediWorld Clinic. Now, she says she feels like a completely new person. “I can walk normally, and the pain is gone from my back. My feet were purple and swollen and they’re not anymore because my circulation is back,” she said to the Star.

Some scientists, however, call Shroff’s approach dangerous and raise concerns about the quality and safety of the cells that she uses in her treatments, and her refusal to publish her findings in reputable, peer-reviewed scientific journals.

Background: The latest in stem cell research

Stem cell research is an area which has received widespread public attention because of the promise that it holds in using tailored treatments and regenerative medicine that could revolutionalize treatment of certain diseases and serious injuries.

In November, knee injuries became the latest application involving adult stem cells. British stem cell researchers at Bristol University were poised to try out a new treatment on humans wherein stem cells are used to repair tears in the knee’s cartilage.

Also in November, doctors were successful for the first time in using stem cells to replace a woman’s trachea.

In October, British lawmakers approved the use of stem cell research with hybrid animal-human embryos in a victory for stem cell research proponents.

In August, scientists announced in the journal Blood that stem cells can be turned into red blood cells.

Also in August, Wired reported that injured race horses are being treated using their own stem cells.

Reference: Researchers review stem cell claims


Most Recent Beyond The Headlines