What is the role of public education and stem cell tourism? What type of education is available to patients, caregivers and the public? Can public education actually change people’s minds such that they won’t undergo an unproven stem cell-based intervention (SCBI)? These are the questions I will discuss here. But first, let’s just give a brief description of stem cell tourism and outline some of the proposals discussed to stop this industry.
The “Stem Cell Tourism” Industry and Ways to Curtail the Market
Briefly, “stem cell tourism” is a term used to describe an Internet-based, direct-to-consumer advertised industry where patients receive unproven SCBIs for a range of diseases and injuries. Many clinics offering unproven SCBIs are in countries with lax regulations and enforcement. However, these clinics are also increasingly popping up in highly regulated countries like the U.S., U.K. and Australia. The term “stem cell tourism” is misleading because patients may not necessarily need to travel a great distance to receive such interventions, and focuses on patient behaviors instead of others involved in this market including regulatory agencies and the providers offering them. Moreover, there are some real risks to stem cell tourism. Beyond patients being financially exploited, there are several reports of tumors, lesions, tremors, other problems, and even deaths of individuals receiving unproven SCBIs. And there seems to be a stem cell “treatment” for just about every disease and injury, no matter how severe or benign if the patient can pay anywhere from $8,000-$30,000. Clinics advertise for serious conditions such as heart disease, stroke, MS, Parkinson’s disease, ALS, and spinal cord injury among many others. You might have also heard of major NFL stars receiving SCBIs for sports injuries, movie stars receiving anti-aging stem cell treatments, and even a U.S. Governor receiving stem cells for chronic back pain. The fact that celebrities and public figures are receiving untested SCBIs is likely to make it seem that they are safe and effective and only bolsters the market. Yet there are very few bonafide stem cell treatments out there. While more clinical trials using stem cells are underway (1), it will become increasingly difficult for patients to discern between a legitimate clinical study and a fraudulent intervention. And because of all the hype, ethical issues, and misconduct scandals having to do with stem cell research, having patients become injured due to an unproven SCBI is not only bad itself of course, but also can seriously stifle the stem cell field.
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