It's medical tourism's bleeding edge: people traveling to countries with no stem cell bans. Last year, a boy went to Russia for stem cell injections in his brain – he got only tumors. Is this the future of medical innovation?
An opinion piece by medical researchers Olle Lindvall and Insoo Hyun published today in Science suggests stem-cell tourism is only likely to grow bigger as the general public learns more about the promise of stem-cell therapies. Unfortunately,there are very few vetted stem-cell treatments. And in many countries like the United States such treatments are often banned by law.
That's why clinics in countries with few regulations, like Russia and China, attract stem-cell tourists in droves. Often, these clinics promise cures that are based on nothing but wishful thinking. Such was the case with the boy who had a neuro-degenerative disease and received stem-cell injections in Russia. His parents were fooled by false advertising into believing that stem cells could cure him. The clinicians merely injected his brain with fetal stem cells and sent him home to Israel. There he began to develop brain tumors and tumors in his spine. His doctor speculated that possibly the problem was that the Russian clinic had treated the cells with something to make them grow in culture, and that caused them to grow irregularly when injected into the boy.
Though this is a sad story, Lindvall and Hyun urge scientists not to dismiss stem cell tourism out of hand. Today it might not be the right treatment, but they say in the near future it may represent the forefront of medical innovation. Specifically, it provides a way for terminally ill patients to participate in innovative therapies that have not yet gone through any clinical trials. The difficult thing is figuring out which therapies are legitimate, and which are like those suffered by the boy with brain tumors.
Lindvall and Hyun say that a legit stem-cell therapy has to be peer reviewed, based in sound scientific reasoning, and must have been tested in animals without adverse side effects. Of course, in countries where there is very little medical regulation it is unclear what peer review might mean. Also, as computer simulations of biological processes get better, it's possible that no animal trials would be necessary.
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It seems that Lindvall and Hyun are taking a "we know it when we see it" approach to this problem. In other words, they know a promising it stem-cell therapy when they see it; everything else is balderdash. Unless, of course, it turns out to be a brilliant new innovation. Perhaps their boldest statement is that stem-cell tourism has its place in medical science. It could be seen as an unofficial first clinical trial.
What's certain is that we're likely to see more and more cases of stem-cell quackery. Every medical technology, no matter how sophisticated, has its basement practitioners. The weird part is that sometimes basement laboratories are the best place for science to progress.
Also, it's interesting to note that late last year the International Society for Stem Cell research published a set of guidelines for people considering stem cell tourism.