Scientists raise awareness of unregulated stem cell treatments for respiratory diseases

Written by Elena Conroy

Stem cell medical tourism and unproven stem cell interventions are growing and concerning issues for patients afflicted with lung disease

Stem cell tourism is becoming a global
problem with more and more unregulated clinics preying on desperate patients
with incurable diseases. According to an editorial authored by
researchers at Boston University School of Medicine (MA, USA), there are an increasing number of clinics worldwide offering
expensive stem cell-based therapies that are ineffective or have no proven
benefit to patients with respiratory diseases. The article was recently
published online in the Annals of the American Thoracic Society.

The prevalence of such unregulated clinics in
the USA was reasonably well known. Online-advertised ‘stem cell tourism’ was
generally considered to mainly take place in countries in South East Asia,
Russia and Eastern Europe, however, a study by Berger et al and other recent studies (such as into clinics in Japan
and the USA)
are disproving this theory.

“Remarkably, an increasing number of
these clinics now operate within the United States. It is imperative that
scientific and medical societies, as well as professional respiratory disease
and critical care communities speak out forcefully against stem cell
tourism,” commented lead author Laertis Ikonomou, assistant professor of
Molecular and Translational Medicine at Boston University School of Medicine.

According to Ikonomou, perceptions of stem
cell-based therapies can be significantly different between experts and the
general public, which includes patients. While experts evaluate therapies based
on demonstrations of safety and efficacy, many patients are motivated by hope
and the desperate need for a cure.

The authors discuss several factors that
exacerbate these perceptions, including aggressive and unscrupulous
advertisement of unproven stem cell therapies, uncritical and overly optimistic
portrayal of stem cell clinical translation in mainstream media, use of
selected and uncontrolled patient testimonials to suggest benefit and
reluctance of experts to speak-out against stem cell medical tourism due to
fears of litigation and political backlash.

“The problem of stem cell medical
tourism of unproven, unregulated cell therapies can be best tackled through
international collaboration, and engagement and education of all parties
including patients, physicians and other caregivers and scientists,”
explained Ikonomou. “We can turn the tide on this global health problem by
vigorously implementing a multi-pronged strategy that combines continuous
education of the public, pressure for effective regulations and rigorous
research in the field of lung regenerative medicine.”


Ikonomou L, Darcy RJ, Wagner
E et al. The Global Emergence of Unregulated Stem Cell Treatments for
Respiratory Diseases. Professional Societies Need to Act. Annals of
the American Thoracic Society
. doi: 10.1513/AnnalsATS.201604-277ED (2016) (Online before print);

Berger I, Ahmad A, Bansal A, Kapoor T, Sipp
D, Rasko JE. Globaldistribution of businesses marketing stem cell-based interventions. Cell
Stem Cell
19(2), 158—1562 (2016)