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Home > Blog > 2013 > Stem cell therapy... the dark side of medical tourism?

Stem cell therapy... the dark side of medical tourism?

Surgeon with arms folded

At Treatment Abroad, we recently received correspondence regarding a UK family’s experience of stem cell tourism. The patient is a four year old boy with autism and speech problems. The parents, desperate to find a cure for their son, started exploring the claims for the use of stem cell therapy in the treatment of autism. They selected a stem cell clinic in China and spend £20,000 on a one month course of treatment in Beijing. Their story is a warning to anyone who is considering the option of unregulated and unproven stem cell therapy and to those in the industry who promote such miracle cures to desperate patients. 

“I could not watch my son suffering such abuse”

The parents and the boy underwent a traumatic experience. Here are some of their comments:

“Everyday my son was given a glucose drip. Three nurses; one used to hold his arms the second nurse held his legs and the third nurse used to give him the injection into different parts of his body including both hands and both feet, if they could not find the right place in his hands  to inject with the glucose drip, they would insert the injection once or twice again in his feet and repeatedly in his hands again. I could not watch my son suffering such abuse.”

“My son was given four stem cell treatments in total. One stem cell treatment every week..... he was taken to a private room for the treatment. He would return back in less than five minutes. Whilst I was checking for any reactions to the stem cells on the back of his spine, I could not see even a little amount of blood at the back of his spine or any mark of injection..... Often, I and my husband have doubts about whether our son may have even been given the stem cells.”

“They know that their stem cells no longer work on autism but are still consistently inviting patients to come their clinic and taking thousands of pounds from them. This is simply fraud.”

Needless to say the family have had no success in seeking compensation from the Chinese clinic. And there is little they can do.

Stem cells... the new miracle cure for.... everything?

Offering bogus treatments to desperate patients is not new. “Quackery” has always existed alongside mainstream medicine. But the rise of stem cell therapy has taken this to a new level.  Nearly every day, the media trumpets the latest breakthrough. Stem cell therapy is mooted as the new miracle cure for many life threatening and life-degenerative diseases such as multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, and dementia. Clinics in India, China, Eastern Europe and Latin America promote stem cell therapy for an abundance of diseases.

The reality is that, at present, there are few areas were stem cell treatment has been proven in clinical trials or where scientifically supported clinical trials are taking place. The difficulty is that the patient may not be able to differentiate between clinically proven therapy, valid experimental trials and quackery. Stem cell therapy, at present, can be categorised as follows:

1.    Clinically proven stem cell treatments

These are few therapies which have undergone rigorous clinical trials in accredited centres and institutions. The cost of such clinical trial programmes should not be underestimated; the budget for a trial into stem cell use can run to millions of dollars. Stem cell tourists may be eligible for inclusion in ongoing clinical trials.

2.    Non-approved stem cell treatment in reputable centres

Qualified and competent healthcare professionals working in accredited clinics may also offer non-approved treatments. The important factor here is that the patient is fully informed of the lack of scientific support and the related risks.

3.    Fraudulent stem cell treatment

In this instance, as with the stem cell clinic in China, the clinic is not licensed or regulated, the competency of the doctors and nursing staff is questionable, and the promotional claims for the safety and efficacy of the therapy are exaggerated and have little or no scientific backing.

The difficulty for the international patient is determining where the multitude of stem cell clinics now operating fit within the above three categories.

Those countries which have a long history of regulation and protection of patient interests are investing heavily in developing stem cell treatments. At academic institutions and research centres in countries such as the USA, the UK and Germany, domestic or international patients can receive stem cell treatment where use has been approved or there is a clinical trial in progress.

Stem cell therapy on the fringes of medicine

Other countries have less regulation of drugs, medical devices and medical innovation... Some are not inclined to regulate stem cell treatments due to local influence and the high returns that are being earned from unproven treatments. Widespread criticism of China’s “anything goes” attitude to stem cell therapy has resulted in controls being introduced and the closure of many unregulated centres. China wants to become part of the World’s scientific and academic community, and has realised that a reputation for “fringe medicine” will do it little credit. But in many countries, stem cell therapy remains uncontrolled.  Unregulated treatment in these countries poses risks to patients; critics believe that the stem cell treatment may be harmful and also delay standard, more effective, therapies. Clinics in these countries are promoting unproven stem cell therapy as the “cure for all ills”... at a price of thousands of dollars to desperate patients and their families. It’s the dark side of medical tourism.

Date published: 15 July 2013


Comments provided below do not represent the views of IMTJ. Comments will be published 'as is' and will not be edited by IMTJ staff. IMTJ is hosting these comments, and is not undertaking an editorial role. However, it is editorial policy to publish comments that have been submitted anonymously. 

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About me

Keith Pollard

Keith Pollard

I am CEO of Intuition Communication Ltd, a web publishing business in the healthcare sector. Our sites include International Medical Travel Journal, Treatment Abroad, the medical tourism portal, DoctorInternet, the Arabic medical tourism portal and Private Healthcare UK, the UK's leading site for private healthcare services. I am a regular speaker and commentator on medical tourism and the independent healthcare sector.

Use the comment submission form below
It is very sad that this family pinned their hopes on a therapy that may have no benefit for their son, and they even doubt the procedure was carried out at all. It is sometimes very difficult to know who to trust in these matters, research is vital in making the correct decision.

Sydney North (09/01/2014 20:27:24)

I agree with Julie Conner. A reputable medical facilitator could have steered this family through the maze. Stem cell treatment for autism has not been effective, only 5% improvement in function, whereas other stem cell treatments have had significant improvements in function. And all stem cell undifferentiation are different. FDA did approve wound and skin care a few months ago in August, 2013. Stem cell treatments hold tremendous promise. It is important to walk toward that bright future with diligence so that the research/treatment being done meets clinical and ethical standards, so that the patient is not harmed.

Joy Farquhar (25/11/2013 20:34:06)

QHA Trent Accreditation's view is that the healthcare services that are delivered to patients should wherever possible be evidence-based. Whenever offering healthcare services, ethics, probity, and adhering to impeccable advertising standards to ubiquitous genuine informed consent should be at the top of the list of everyone's non-negotiables - which is why QHA Trent accreditation requires hospitals and clinics seeking our approval to have a functioning and effective expert-based Clinical Ethics Committee if they are going to be passed by us. There are clearly diagnostic and treatment options which are in the pipeline for many medical conditions, and human longing and desperation can be hard to deal with, but maintaining the health and well-being of any and all patients is, and should always remain, at the foundations of all that we do.

Steve Green (26/09/2013 15:34:25)

This article, indeed, points out the dangers for patients and families, specifically when it comes to stem cell therapy. It is a growing research area, very exciting, but still in it nascent stage in terms of moving from the bed to the bedside. Maria is correct -- that there are some early clinical trials, but the data do not at this time lead to patients travelilng abroad for 'bogus' treatments that are harmful and costly. The quality and evidence issue again raises its ugly head! We do not have quality and safety metrics in place for the medical travel industry. It is sorely needed.

sharon kleefield (17/07/2013 17:28:15)

Although not well know there are EU rules on this sector

Like all treatments, these techniques also come with benefits and risks. Specific rules were introduced in the European Union (EU) in 2007 (Regulation (EC) No 1394/2007- to ensure that medicines involving cell therapy are subject to appropriate authorisation, supervision and controls in order to reduce and manage those risks.

The International Society for Stem Cell Research (ISSCR) voiced concern as the Italian government authorized an unproven stem cell therapy for use in patients.

Stem cells hold great promise for the treatment of a wide range of diseases and injuries; however, years of laboratory research followed by rigorous clinical trials are required to deliver safe and effective therapies to patients. Currently, the range of diseases for which stem cell treatments have been demonstrated to be safe and beneficial remains limited. ISSCR believes that ongoing research will eventually lead to new therapies for additional diseases but until the research has been completed we cannot be sure which diseases can be treated effectively with stem cells, or how the stem cells should be used to ensure safety and effectiveness.

The excitement about the promise of stem cells has resulted in confusion for patients struggling to cope with incurable diseases. The ISSCR is concerned that inadequately tested stem cell treatments are being marketed around the world to patients and their families without the necessary safeguards in place to ensure safety and efficacy.

The message here is that even if a government has authorised a treatment or licensed a clinic -that does not in any way mean that the treatment works.

Ian Youngman (17/07/2013 13:12:35)

This is a very sad story, the kind we all hate to hear about. The article does not indicate if a medical facilitator was used in the research and/or facilitation stage or not, I am assuming not.

There are may facilitation companies like GLOBAL Medical Tourism Facilitators who could have helped this desperate family from being scammed. However, the sad truth is that there are also even more facilitation companies that would just take her money. Proper research is paramount!

Julie Conner (16/07/2013 17:25:01)

At Mercury Advisory Group, we consult in medical tourism business development with providers throughout the world. Because we have both medical and travel background, and are experienced health administrators, we vet clients before we accept their commissions to work on their project.

Likewise, when we accept a provider in network, we vet provider credentials and competency by primary source verification and direct observation, and then perform deep examination on official policies, procedures, outcomes, and operational practices. Chinese, Russian, Spanish, or Kaswahili, we have ways of translating these documents to determine if the clinic meets "science", "service", and "safety".

For stem cell, in particular, most every location, worldwide is in clinical trials stage. What happened to them is deplorable and will continue as long as there are nonsense medical tourism facilitator certifications that don't involve bona fide training and professionalism to safeguard the patient /consumer from experiences such as these.

Maria K Todd, MHA PhD (16/07/2013 00:34:07)