In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates stem cell therapies and ensures that they are safe as well as effective for the intended use. The FDA has jurisdiction over the production and marketing of a wide range of human cells, tissues, and tissue-based products. Scientists and physicians must answer many questions and demonstrate efficacy before a stem-cell-based product is allowed to be used clinically.
What is stem cell tourism?
Desperate patients who are suffering from debilitating disease and have exhausted all their options sometimes choose to travel thousands of miles to obtain experimental stem cell treatments in foreign countries. This is referred to as “stem cell tourism.” Mexico is a particularly popular destination on account of its geographical closeness to the United States. Many therapies that do not have FDA approval in the United States are legally or illegally available in countries such as Mexico, Russia, and China. However, as one man found out, there can be spine-chilling consequences to “stem cell tourism.”
What can go wrong when you travel abroad for medical treatment?
Picture this: It is the aseptic environment of an operation suite at Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital. Dr. John Chi, director of Neurosurgical Spine Cancer and Assistant Professor at Harvard Medical School, is working with deep concentration on a patient on the operating table. When he opens up the spine, Dr. Chi gasps in horror. There is a strange, enormous, tumor-like mass filling up the man’s entire lower spinal column. As he starts to pick at it, the mass begins to bleed. He finds the mass is stuck to the surrounding tissue. In more than a decade of neurosurgical practice, Dr. Chi has never seen anything like it.
Who was the patient and where did he receive treatment?
Sixty-six-year-old Jim Gass was suffering from the aftereffects of a 2009 stroke, battling pain, paralysis, and other problems. Conventional treatments had failed to work. Gass read about stem cells and how they can heal damaged tissue. But he found these treatments are not yet FDA-approved in the United States. Over the next few years, Gass traveled to Mexico, China, and Argentina to receive stem cell treatment. At different clinics in these countries, mesenchymal, fetal, and embryonic neural cells were delivered directly to his lower spine. Gass spent an estimated $300,000 on travel and treatment.
Stem Cell Tourism: The Danger is Real
There are an increasing number of clinics in China, Mexico, Russia, and even Europe that claim miraculous success in treating diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, muscular dystrophy, and spinal cord injuries. In theory, stem cells can treat essentially any damaged or diseased tissue in the body. But in reality, stem cell treatment needs to be very carefully regulated.
Stem cell tourism is a multi-million-dollar industry. Thousands of hopeless patients are seeking treatment at unregulated clinics. Glowing testimonials on the clinic’s website are misleading and unreliable.
It’s important to understand that while stem cells can multiply and replace diseased or injured tissue, they are also capable of quickly accumulating mutations similar to cancer cells.
Jim Gass had a weak left arm and leg. Now, $300,000 and numerous treatments later, he is paralyzed from the neck down with a life-threatening foreign body in his spine that shows no signs of slowing down in growth. The tragic story of Jim Gass should serve as a cautionary tale for all of us: the danger of stem cell tourism is very real.
- Image courtesy of http://news.wisc.edu/