The growing noise about the prospects of stem cell therapies has prompted a disturbing trend, according to a number of researchers at ISSCR 2014: the increasing availability of unproven treatments for patients. It appears that alongside the technological advances that are making it easier for researchers to produce and manipulate stem cells is the growth of clinics offering to treat patients with therapies that are at best still experimental and are clearly unlicensed.
Part of the challenge is due to the hype around the wonders offered by stem cell therapies; hype perpetuated by the medical and journalistic communities. Darin Weber, executive vice president of global regulatory affairs at Mesoblast, describes the problem as: breakthrough by press release.
In parallel, the more media-aware public is becoming more aggressive in their desires for treatment and possible cures for their medical conditions, even if they have to leave their home country to find hope.
Megan Munsie of Stem Cells Australia described the clash between patient optimism and scientific evidence in her organization’s examination of stem cell tourism, looking at what they called the “Hopeful Journeys” of 16 Australians. Perhaps not surprisingly, the strongest motivation for these patients and caregivers was a sense of hope, particularly in the face of daunting medical challenges. Where the researchers were surprised was in the patients’ general concepts of risk, which were predominantly about money rather than risks to the body.
What was also interesting to Munsie’s group was the attitudes of the Australian medical community, which viewed the overseas experiments as dubious and questioned the ethics of selling hope, but at the same time, felt completely justified and competent to offer the same services at home as Australia’s regulatory environment changes. As Munsie described it, other practitioners were seen as “cowboys” while the Australian practitioners surveyed felt they were practicing sound, evidence-based medicine.You can learn more about the Stem Cell Tourism Research Project here.