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Warning on untested stem cell therapies

29 August 2006
Appeared in BioNews 373

A group of British scientists, medical researchers and funding organisations has written an open letter to the Times newspaper, saying that patients should be warned that some stem cell therapies being offered by clinics are not 'wonder cures'. Many of the therapies available - at home and abroad, and often at a high price - are as yet untested, and therefore unreliable, say the experts.

In the letter, the experts warn that many of the companies offering stem cell treatments have little medical evidence to support their claims. While stem cell research and therapies do potentially hold great promise, the signatories say, unorthodox treatments may do more harm than good to patients - for example by carrying a risk of infection, immune system rejection or cancer. The letter also warns that 'mainstream' stem cell research could be set back by the premature use of stem cells in therapies before safety and effectiveness checks have been carried out: 'We worry that those cutting corners risk discrediting the field as well as betraying patients', it says.

So far, only very few treatments using adult or cord blood stem cells have been licensed in the UK - these tend to be for treatments for leukaemia and related conditions, or for skin and eye conditions. But some private centres, as well as clinics in other countries, offer 'unorthodox' stem cell treatments for multiple sclerosis, or cosmetic reasons. 'There is no published evidence to support claims that stem cells can safely repair tissue damage caused by multiple sclerosis', says the letter. One example is a clinic that operates in the Netherlands, backed by Swedish company Advanced Cell Therapeutics. It charges up to £13,500 for treatment with cord blood stem cells - but is under investigation by the authorities, and the procedure it offers was banned earlier this year in Ireland. There are only anecdotal reports of the treatment being successful.

The letter was signed by Professor Colin Blakemore, head of the Medical Research Council, Lord Patel, of the Steering Committee for the UK Stem Cell Bank and Simon Gillespie, head of The Multiple Sclerosis Society. Others represented include the heads of the Parkinson's Disease Society, the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation and the Alzheimer's Society. 'We would urge anyone considering visiting clinics overseas to obtain treatments not available in the UK to seek advice from their consultants or their GPs and to weigh the risks carefully', they say.

The BBC has reported that a five year-old girl from Sussex is being taken to China for a course of cord blood stem cell injections, after her parents raised £20,000 for the trip. The treatment, which her parents hope will cure her of Batten's Disease, a rare genetic disorder affecting speech and movement, is not legal in the UK. Annette Dacosta, the girl's mother, told the BBC: 'Maybe I'm offering her up as a guinea pig to be the first child to see what happens with stem cells. If it works, fantastic. If it doesn't work then my child's had four injections and she's come out of it unscathed'.

No cutting corners in stem-cell research
The Times |  29 August 2006
Patients warned over dangers of untested stem-cell wonder cures
The Times |  29 August 2006
Stem cell treatment for ill girl
BBC News Online |  28 August 2006
Stem cell 'wonder cures' warning
BBC News Online |  29 August 2006
18 October 2010 - by Claire Bale and Dr Kieran Breen 
Thousands of people with serious, long term health conditions are tempted abroad each year by untested stem cell treatments. Untested stem cell treatments for Parkinson's are available in several countries, including clinics in Germany and China. But the treatments are expensive - often many thousands of pounds - and come without any scientific evidence that they work and with real risks...
23 February 2009 - by Dr Will Fletcher 
Neural fetal stem cell injections, administered to a boy in Russia in an attempt to treat a rare genetic condition, have caused benign brain tumours to grow. This is the first documented example of such a complication in a human, although there have been reports of tumours...
2 October 2006 - by Laura Goodall 
The first trial for a proposed stem cell treatment for Batten's disease is about to begin. Researchers at the Oregon Health and Science University's (OHSU) Doernbecher Children's Hospital, US, plan to treat six children with the rare neurodegenerative disorder by using fetal stem cell transplants. Children with...
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