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Stem cell tourism - don't believe the hype

18 October 2010
Appeared in BioNews 580
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.

Within the last month, a Dutch doctor was struck of the medical register for exploiting vulnerable MS patients by charging them for expensive 'cures' achieved by injecting stem cells that did not work. In another high-profile case, a young boy in Russia had stem cell treatment for a spinal cord injury that led to tumours forming in his spinal column. The power of stem cells to grow and divide, which makes them so exciting, also means we need to handle them with care.

People with Parkinson's don't have enough of a chemical called dopamine because some nerve cells in their brains have died. For people with Parkinson's, the hope is to use stem cells to grow new dopamine-producing nerve cells. These could one day be used to replace those that are lost inside the Parkinson's brain.

Researchers can successfully grow nerve cells similar to those lost in Parkinson's, but implanting them into the brains of animals has, in some cases, resulted in tumours. Amazing progress is being made, but we still need to tackle several research challenges before stem cell therapies become a reality for people with Parkinson's. This October, the first clinical trial using embryonic stem cells in humans has taken place in the US, for a patient with spinal injuries.

For people with Parkinson's, the temptation to believe the personal stories of miracle recoveries often overshadows the lack of scientific evidence. Dr Kieran Breen, Director of Research and Development at Parkinson's UK is contacted every week by people who are considering going abroad for stem cell therapy. Although Parkinson's UK explains there's no proof and they could do harm, seeking therapy abroad is a personal choice. The financial problems people get into to afford these treatments and their despair when they don't work can be devastating too.

The clinics argue that they are giving desperate people a chance to have pioneering experimental treatments years before they become widely available. They cast the regulators, researchers and healthcare professionals as 'bad guys' who are slowing progress and denying people access to miracle cures. But when you remember that these clinics only provide treatment to the patients who pay, their position starts to look less altruistic.

Parkinson's UK urges these clinics to prove their treatments work by doing the research and sharing what they are doing. If these treatments are as safe and effective as they say, what have they got to hide? Science moves forward through collaboration and building on what others have done before. By not participating in the global research effort to harness the power of stem cells, these offshore stem cell clinics are, if anything, undermining research progress. In science, there are no short cuts.

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