Bioethics News

End ‘stem cell tourism,’ experts urge

Stem cell scientists appear to have oversold their product. In debates a decade ago, scientists, foundations and patient advocacy groups spoke glibly of cures for chronic diseases which would come after embryonic stem cell research was legalised. They made a rod for their own back.

The cures have been slow in coming, but not the hucksters, charlatans and snake-oil salesmen. According to a paper in BMC Medical Ethics by Kirstin Matthews, of Rice University, and Ana Iltis, of Wake Forest University, disillusioned patients, tired of waiting for the cures they were promised, are seeking unproven stem cell-based treatments that are causing more harm than good.

The continued marketing and use of experimental stem cell-based interventions inside and outside the United States is problematic and unsustainable.

The rise in stem cell tourism is a recent phenomenon, write Matthews and Ilitis. Scientists have long envisioned their stem cell research would lead to cures in the near future. In 2004, patient-advocate groups were major players in helping pass and implement significant public policy and funding initiatives in stem cells and regenerative medicine. In the following years, advocates were also actively engaged in Washington DC, encouraging policymakers to broaden embryonic stem cell research funding, which was ultimately passed after President Barack Obama came into office. After waiting more than 10 years, many of these same patients are now approaching clinics around the world that are offering experimental stem cell-based interventions instead of waiting for scientists in the US to complete clinical trials.

Central problems of stem cell tourism include the lack of patient protection, US liability standards, regulation of clinical sites and clinician licensing, the authors said.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.