Stem-cell therapy scams 'preying on the vulnerable'
Published 05/02/2013 | 06:00
THE promise of stem-cell therapy remains a beacon for many people with a range of diseases – but too many Irish patients are falling victim to scams.
Dr Stephen Sullivan, who is chief officer at the Irish Stem Cell Foundation, said that while there are many trials under way, the reality is that at present there are only nine safe and effective treatments for human illnesses using stem cells.
"These are for two cancers of the blood (leukaemia and lymphoma), some rare blood disorders and two conditions related to the cornea (the front of the eye) and the skin," he told Health and Living.
A small number of stem cells from the body can be grown in the laboratory until they have created millions of new stem cells.
This makes it possible for researchers to explore potential cell-based therapies which hold the promise of repairing or even replacing damaged or diseased organs.
"There is misinformation floating around," Dr Sullivan added. "Scam clinics are abundant and offer patient testimonials instead of peer-reviewed medical papers as evidence.
"There is money to be made by telling desperate patients and their loved ones that there is a cure."
The Irish media frequently reports on fundraising to send a particular ill child or adult abroad for one of these treatments.
But they are leaving people with misplaced hope because of rogue schemes which prey on the vulnerable.
"A key sign of a scam is where the patient or carer is asked for a large amount of money up front," he said.
"The person will also have to travel to a jurisdiction where medical oversight and policing is weak. There is no aftercare treatment care and observation after the person returns home.
"They may be offering a cure for physiologically distinct conditions such as autism and diabetes."
Dr Sullivan said many of the stem-cell reports in the Irish media focus on the human interest story, highlighting the person's plight and hopes.
However, we have relatively little reported about where the research and medicine actually stand.
"It does not help the situation that the Government does not honour its promise in the Programme for Government to introduce stem-cell legislation," he added.
"It makes it harder for the public to discriminate reality from scam."
The fear is that people who have serious and terminal conditions could be put at further risk from untested and expensive treatments.
He advised people to be careful about current common scams. These include the supposed treatment of septo-optic dysplasia (a vision and brain condition) in China.
Other scams include promises of treatment of autism by a Californian-run Mexican clinic and similar claims by clinics in Germany. The message is that, apart from the nine proven therapies, the science is still at an early stage and much more work is needed before it can be used safely and effectively.
The more common form of stem-cell therapy, involving a blood or bone marrow transplant, has been in place for half a century.
"The cells are harvested from the bone marrow of matched donors, processed and then transplanted into the patient. The patient has usually been treated to receive a transplant of bone marrow after undergoing intensive chemotherapy."