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.

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.


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