Stem cell therapy tourism is controversial as there are disputes over whether or not it works and how safe it is.
American football superstar quarterback Peyton Manning has travelled to Europe for stem cell therapy for his neck injury. Some stem cell procedures and therapies are approved in some countries but not in the USA.
Stem cells are the body's source of all cells for the maintenance and repair of tissues. Typically used in treatments for leukemia and several genetic diseases, the use of stem cells in treating spinal cord injuries is not proven and experimental. Stem cell therapy is regulated in the USA and is treated as a drug, rather than a therapy, requiring three trial phases before being medically accepted. There is complex controversy on medical, ethical, religious, legal and scientific grounds.
Stem cells can come from the patient themselves, which is the case with Manning. The hope is that the stem cell therapy will regenerate the nerve area in his neck and provide some relief. The main problems begin when patients use stem cells from other people.
Two American scientists, Zubin Master and David B. Resnik, recently write a detailed article for The Scientist
, and points relevant to medial tourism include -
• Young and elderly patients have died from receiving illegitimate stem cell treatments; others have developed tumors following stem cell transplantations.
• Some involved doctors have lost their licence, but the number of overseas clinics is growing, offering stem cell treatments for several debilitating and incurable ailments, including Parkinson’s disease, spinal cord injury, multiple sclerosis, diabetes, and cancer. Most of these treatments are expensive and unproven “miracle cures’.
• Patients are encouraged to travel abroad to receive therapies that they expect will be approved in the USA in the future and do not understand the reason why approval takes so long.
• International guidelines could help by encouraging countries to develop laws and regulations ensuring that clinics offering treatments receive ethics approval and have received regulatory oversight for the products and procedures they intend to use on patients.
• International guidelines may not carry sufficient weight as some countries will not adopt them or will choose to ignore them to protect lucrative tourism.
• Stem cell tourism cannot be stopped by legislation or restrictions imposed by respectable scientists.
• Desperate people will always take risks for an untreatable lethal condition; even an outside chance is better than no hope.
Stem cell experts are worried about clinics and hospitals in China, Mexico, India, Turkey, Russia and Brazil promoting stem cell therapies that have not undergone clinical trials and which are not recognized as standard treatment. Hospitals in China are offering stem cell backed by little or no scientific evidence, which are at best experimental. Patients pay very high amounts for treatment but come away with little or no improvement and a number have died.
Patients facing death or unbearable pain are easy targets for hospitals, clinics and agencies promoting stem cell tourism. They have little to lose and are also reluctant to complain if they do not get better as they are embarrassed at spending lots of money against professional medical advice.
Patients can be scammed. Suspicious signs include being asked for large sums of money up front; being told there are no risks, and being offered no post-therapy care. Patients should be told how they will be treated, what stem cells are used and where they come from. They should not accept any therapy based on hearsay, or without the treatment being validated.