Bioethicist Educates About Risks of “Stem Cell Tourism”
ALBANY, N.Y., March 12, 2014 — The dangers of “stem cell tourism,” a growing trend of international clinics luring patients with false promises of stem cell therapies and cures, is one topic discussed in a free booklet published online this month by Albany Medical College bioethicist Zubin Master, Ph.D.
Stem cells are capable of giving rise to specialized cells that can be used to regenerate tissues in the human body, including muscles, nervous tissue and skin. The research holds tremendous promise for healing injuries and treating diseases such as Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis and cerebral palsy.
“Most stem cell interventions are still considered research and can be a long way from the clinic,” said Dr. Master, assistant professor at the Alden March Bioethics Institute at Albany Medical College. “There has been a lot of hype over stem cells, so it’s no wonder that patients might believe there are therapies available in other countries.”
Dr. Master said illegitimate clinics that commonly claim to treat a wide range of diseases can charge as much as $30,000 or more for potentially fake therapies. Located in China, India, Russia and the Caribbean, but also in the United States, these clinics advertise online and often feature patient testimonials as proof the therapies work.
“As scientists, we know you cannot evaluate a therapy based solely on patient testimonials,” said Dr. Master. “Unfortunately, these clinics prey on people’s hopes and their desire to do something about their condition. Clinics may also count on a patient’s frustrations with lengthy regulatory approval processes in many countries like the U.S. But there is a reason why it’s lengthy, and that’s to ensure patient safety.”
Although patients may feel that they have nothing to lose by pursuing non-U.S. approved stem cell treatments or trials, Dr. Master warned that these unproven treatments can be dangerous – as some have caused tumors, lesions, and even death.
The booklet, “What You Need to Know about Stem Cell Therapies,” is available online here and is co-written with Professor Timothy Caulfield, a legal scholar at the University of Alberta’s Health Law Institute in Canada.
“The booklet provides user-friendly information on stem cells, their promise, how research trials work and the ethics involved, and how to distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate therapies,” said Dr. Master, who recommends that patients speak with their physicians about approved clinical trials that they may be eligible for. A list of registered clinical trials can also be found at ClinicalTrials.gov.
A Public Outreach Award from Canada’s Stem Cell Network paid for the production of the booklet, and it will be made available to patient advocacy groups in the United States and internationally.
Albany Medical Center, northeastern New York’s only academic health sciences center, is one of the largest private employers in the Capital Region. It incorporates the 734-bed Albany Medical Center Hospital, which offers the widest range of medical and surgical services in the region, and the Albany Medical College, which trains the next generation of doctors, scientists and other healthcare professionals, and also includes a biomedical research enterprise and the region’s largest physicians practice with more than 400 doctors. Albany Medical Center works with dozens of community partners to improve the region’s health and quality of life. For more information: www.amc.edu or www.facebook.com/albanymedicalcenter.
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