Jun 2016

Putting a face on the dangers of stem cell tourism

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Jim Gass, a 66-year-old lawyer who now lives in San Diego, has inadvertently become the human face of the dangers of stem cell tourism.

A feature in the New York Times headlined “A Cautionary Tale of Stem Cell Therapy Abroad” tells of how Mr. Gass spent $300,000 by travelling to clinics in Mexico, China, and Argentina in search of a miracle stem cell cure after he had a stroke. Recently, his American doctors found a huge mass of someone else’s cells growing aggressively in his lower spine.

As the article explains, Mr Gass travelled from clinic to clinic believing that the worst that could happen was there would be no improvement in his post-stroke condition, which left his left arm useless and his left leg weak. Except for being able to use his right arm, he is now paralyzed from the neck down.

In Mexico he received an injection of fetal cells shipped from Russia that, for a time, seemed to improve his ability to walk: “Then something disturbing happened,” Mr. Gass told the Times. “I felt pain when I would lie down, like I was lying on a tumor. “I started to lose my ability to walk and I fell down a lot.”

That’s when Boston doctors found the mass containing someone else’s primitive cells. They treated it with radiation, which seemed to slow its growth, but the mass is growing again.

As discussed on the Treatments Abroad page on our website, scientific discoveries and innovations surrounding the potential of stem cell science have led to great enthusiasm about potential benefits to patients.  But the dark side of that enthusiasm is the hype, exaggerated publicity and inaccurate claims in the interest of financial gain.

Many unregulated clinics around the world offer treatments that are simply not based on sound scientific evidence. If you or someone you know is considering such a therapy, you’d be wise to consult a booklet produced by the University of Alberta Faculty of Law, Albany Medical College and the Stem Cell Network entitled What you need to know about stem cell therapies.  A PDF version is available here.

An excellent web resource is the International Society of Stem Cell Research Web page: A Closer look at Stem Cells. It includes a Patient Handbook downloadable in several languages.

Both sources advise potential patients to be wary of clinics that offer patient testimonials in place of evidence gathered through rigorous clinical trials.  Or, as Mr. Gass now says: “Don’t trust anecdotes.”


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