ALBANY, N.Y., Sept. 15, 2014 — Research by an Albany Medical College bioethicist has found that further efforts are needed to educate patients and the public about the dangers of “stem cell tourism,” a growing Internet trend in which international clinics lure desperate patients with false promises of stem cell therapies and cures.
Writing in the September 2014 edition of the journal Cell Stem Cell, Zubin Master, Ph.D., assistant professor at the Alden March Bioethics Institute at Albany Medical College, and his co-author from the University of Alberta’s Health Law Institute in Canada, found that there is still a lack of comprehensive information available to the public.
“This suggests further coordinated efforts are needed by governments, scientific organizations, the medical and ethics communities and patient advocacy groups to stifle this industry,” said Dr. Master.
Stem cells are capable of giving rise to specialized cells that can be used to regenerate tissues in the human body, including muscles, nervous tissue and skin. The research holds tremendous promise for healing injuries and treating diseases such as Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis and cerebral palsy.
“However most stem cell interventions are still considered research and can be a long way from the clinic,” said Dr. Master. “There has been a lot of hype over stem cells, so it’s no wonder that patients might believe there are therapies available in other countries.”
Dr. Master said illegitimate clinics located in China, India, Russia and the Caribbean, and also the United States, advertise online and claim to treat a wide range of diseases, charging as much as $30,000 or more for most probably fake and sometimes dangerous therapies.
The researchers examined the websites of 175 international scientific organizations and patient advocacy groups, many from the U.S. and Canada, to see if they offered online education on the risks of stem cell tourism. They found that while half of the sites had educational content on the science of stem cells, only 16 percent of scientific organizations and 12 percent of patient advocacy groups had information on stem cell tourism.
“The phenomenon of stem cell tourism continues to be a major policy issue,” said co-author Professor Timothy Caulfield at the University of Alberta. “People are being exploited. But despite efforts to curb the marketing of unproven therapies, which has the potential to cause real harm, this industry seems to be growing. While the provision of accurate information won’t, on its own, stop patients from using unproven therapies, it may help them make more informed choices.”