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Stem Cell Tourism: Preying on the Desperate

PHOTO: UW-Madison professor of law and bioethics Alta Charro, a nationally recognized expert on the ethics of stem-cell research, describes a new scam called "stem cell tourism" that preys on desperate patients hoping for a miracle cure. (UW-Madison photo)
PHOTO: UW-Madison professor of law and bioethics Alta Charro, a nationally recognized expert on the ethics of stem-cell research, describes a new scam called "stem cell tourism" that preys on desperate patients hoping for a miracle cure. (UW-Madison photo)
March 31, 2014

MADISON, Wis. - Many of us may not have heard of stem-cell tourism, but according to University of Wisconsin-Madison law and bioethics professor Alta Charro, a nationally recognized authority on the ethics of stem cell research, it is a new scam that preys on desperate patients via the Internet.

She said that, while there are many reputable health care providers who use adult stem cells for treating conditions such as certain cancers, and others participating in legitimate clinical trials, there is a growing number of clinics advertising "therapies" based on a wide range or as-yet-unproven uses for stem cells.

"You are a parent with a child with a serious illness," Charro suggested. "Chances are you're finding out about everything out there that's possible. Many people who are desperate will go to places like China, Russia, Mexico, Ukraine, looking for clinics that advertise that they have therapies, even though by our standards those things have not been proven."

Charro said the evidence for therapeutic use of stem cells is very limited, and the treatments being advertised by these clinics are mostly ineffective and sometimes harmful. She said the Federal Trade Commission has the authority to shut down false or misleading ads in the U.S., but so far doesn't have enough complaints to do it.

"It would be very helpful if consumers around the country were to write to the FTC and say, 'You know, I think this is terrible. My sister-in-law was fooled and almost spent her entire fortune going to China for pointless therapy. Why is it that that can be advertised on our Internet here?'"

According to Charro, it's not clear how much harm these unregulated treatments cause to medical tourists because there's no comprehensive follow-up data. She said there are probably more people injured than anybody would imagine.

The National Institutes of Health keeps track of stem cell research being done in accordance with regulatory oversigh rules, and you can find that list at ClinicalTrial.gov.

Prof. Charro declared that unfortunately the phrase "stem cells" has become magic words.

"Well, I think that the whole field of stem-cell research became a victim of its own success," she said. "We did get the funding stream guaranteed, at least under the current administration, but at the same time the public may very well have come to be confused about the current state of the research."

She said new areas of science get the reputation of offering magical cures. Today it's stem cells and nanotechnology, and she said it's time to lose the hype without losing the hope.

Tim Morrissey, Public News Service - WI