The term pseudomedicine could be considered a more appropriate term than stem cell tourism. However both terms reflect the doubt perceived by the academic medical profession with regard to the inferred efficacy of treatments which are unashamedly and widely advertised on the internet.
This type of activity probably represents the main threat at the moment to being able to establish safe and regulated treatment protocols. We don’t want charletans and we don’t want snake oil muddying the waters and detracting the messages obtained from good science. These websites and clinics are frankly dangerous and backward because they trivialize the risks. They offer unproven therapies, describe deceptive claims and represent hidden dangers to patients. They represent the major threat to the funding and regulation of legitimate work in the field.
It is common knowledge that patients will travel the globe in search of stem cell cures. It is also apparent that stem cell treatments are also being offered right on our doorstep. A cruise through the Google search engine will reveal numerous opportunities to attend stem cell clinics in most parts of the world including those considered most stringently regulated. Due to a lack of regulation these clinics put us back to a ‘wild west’ of the very worst type of medical practice.
Stem cell pseudomedicine is characterised by commercialisation of cell-based products coupled with a lack of scientific evidence regarding efficacy. It is transparent only in it’s marketing direct to the consumer. The patient pays the fee for service and positive beneficial results are claimed only in testimonials. Media driven stories often relating to famous sports personalities or film stars appear to back up credibility even though independent verification is conspicuous only by its absence.
Patients with diabetes unfortunately fall right into the middle of the trap when it comes to considering the range of treatments on offer. The very nature of diabetes means that patients will scour the internet looking for a cure. The associated complications affecting a variety of organs will widen the search for treatments still further. The explosion of unregulated stem cell therapies in treating skin and joint diseases also mean that many diabetic patients will also offer themselves to the possibility of a variety of patch up cures. Unregulated clinics lack the pre-clinical scientific safety data, the consent of patients is uninformed, the personel are often inadequately trained, there is little longterm data and therefore no possibility of a systematic review of complications.
All of us in the field have heard of horror stories, the case of a patient who developed brain tumours after treatment, the case of kidney failure after a supposed ‘safe’ re-injection of the patient’s own blood cells. These stories alone should be enough to put of potential punters but it is the lure of cure which drives the individual wishes of patients. The fault here is not the patient but the lack of regulation from the medical profession and politicians.
The nutritional supplement industry is a further cause for concern. The marketing focus is on supplements that allegedly stimulate your own stem cells, there are no safety checks, no knowledge of substance purity, of dose or of efficacy. The evasion of regulation of these practices is a cause of great concern for the health and safety of our patients.
If you see a stem cell treatment being marketed as a cure for diabetes it is important for you to understand that no such claims have ever been substantiated by any scientific evidence. This field offers great potential but it is still in its infancy, we are nowhere near being able to offer a meaningful treatment programme with robust data on long-term outcomes or safety.
It is recommended that anyone interested in this area should refer to an organization set up to promote public and professional education in stem cell research and therapies. A good start would be to review the information provided by the International Society for Stem Cell Research (see www.ISSCR.org). The guidelines contain solid standards designed to protect patients, to discourage direct marketing of unproven therapies and outlines the process of informed consent. This will inform you of what we know and what we don’t know.