Stem Cell Tourists Denied: Costa Rica Stops Treatments at Top Clinic

By Joseph Calamia | June 7, 2010 12:01 pm

sunLast month, Costa Rica’s health ministry halted treatments at the country’s largest stem cell clinic, arguing that the treatments are unproven and possibly unsafe.

Though the Obama administration has expanded federal funding of stem cell research and there are ongoing clinical trials, there are currently no FDA-approved stem cell treatments. So some Americans, suffering from conditions ranging from cancer to spinal injuries, have looked elsewhere for experimental stem cell-based remedies, and clinics in countries such as Costa Rica, China, India, and Mexico have grown into stem cell tourist destinations.

Costa Rica’s largest clinic, the Institute of Cellular Medicine in San Jose, was operated by American entrepreneur Neil Riordan; it attracted about 400 patients for these treatments. The clinic used adult stem cells, which Costa Rica’s government had allowed the clinic to take from patients’ fat and bone marrow. The government had not authorized the clinic to use these cells for treatment.

“If (stem cell treatment’s) efficiency and safety has not been proven, we don’t believe it should be used,” said Dr. Ileana Herrera, chief of the ministry’s research council. “As a health ministry, we must always protect the human being.” [Reuters]

Researchers argue that such clinics neither provide reliable treatment nor advance research since they use anecdotal evidence for a treatment’s efficacy and don’t safeguard against other variables in their testing. Given the dire conditions of many patients seeking these clinics, many worry that desperate patients make easy targets.

The International Society of Stem Cell research has cautioned against so-called stem cell tourism. “The (U.S.) clinical trials are ambiguous at the moment,” said Dr. David Scadden, co-director of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute in Boston. “When these kinds of treatments are proposed, they’re being essentially marketed by virtue of the anecdotal report. I feel the danger of exploitation is extremely high.” [Reuters]

Despite Costa Rica’s halt on treatments, other countries continue to host stem cell tourists. Clinics in China mostly use fetal stem cells from miscarriages–which are neither adult stem cells nor the more controversial embryonic stem cells. Embryonic stem cells, which can develop into any type of tissue, have the potential to more easily treat a variety of conditions, but given the ease with which they grow and replicate they may also cause tumors.

Cheng Bo, deputy director of the [Wu Stem Cells Medical Center in China], said doctors there offer potential patients realistic assessments of the risks and benefits. “We tell them it’s impossible to cure patients completely,” he said. “Our goal is to improve the quality of their life or to extend their life.” Many patients–about a third are children–come from developed countries where medical treatment is in general considered superior to China’s, although they may lag behind China in stem cell research. [Washington Post]

But many experts argue that there is currently no way to realistically assess such risks, given that clinical trials are ongoing. As Costa Rica Health Minister Maria Luisa Avila said while discussing the shut-down of the Costa Rica clinic:

“This isn’t allowed in any serious country in the world.” [Reuters]

Related content:
80beats: Obama to Lift Bush’s Restrictions on Stem Cell Research Today
80beats: UK Aims to Create “Unlimited” Supply of Synthetic Blood from Stem Cells
80beats: FDA Approves the First Clinical Trials Using Embryonic Stem Cells
80beats: Leftover Embryos at Fertility Clinics Pose Troubling Questions for Patients
DISCOVER: Stem Cell Science Takes Off

Image: flickr / Armando Maynez

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine
  • Jockaira

    “This isn’t allowed in any serious country in the world.”

    Nuff said!

    A friend of mind told me that several years ago, he had landed in Costa Rica and started walking towards the capital because he had neglected to reserve pocket cash for the taxi fare. Soon he was picked up by a passing motorist in an older US-model auto without air-conditioning. The hitchhiker related that he did not know the identity of the motorist until he pulled up at the presidential palace and was greeted warmly by the military guard detail, saluting the Costa Rican President in his old “American” car.

    Costa Rica has long been considered the 51st state, indeed as an undeclared territory of the US. With that in mind, it would not be difficult to imagine that “Big Pharma” or the FDA was wielding influence in Costa Rica to satisfy their own ends. That being said, it is refreshing to hear any kind of government official here or there adopt a logical position and defend the rights of sick people to being protected from unprincipled profiteers and, of course, themselves.

    If the vendors of stem-cell treatment were to earmark part of their proceeds to legitimate research, it would be a very good thing and would show their commitment to the needs of their patients.

  • Gabriel

    *Costa Rica has no army*

  • pokemon24

    Jock perhaps your right.
    Funny thing about big companies trying to control situations in their favor is that it is an issue of time, perhaps Pharma is doing this the question now is how many other destinations can they influence the enemy is immortal new faces emerge as old ones die. If accusation is correct they will continue to do so until it is not profitable. Tech is dispersed to everyone but the richer get it sooner.

  • Adrian

    @Jockaira: You (or your friend) may be confusing Costa Rica with Puerto Rico (as many do). Costa Rica’s been an independent Republic since 1821 and it’s not even close to be considered the 51st state of the US. It has no armed forces since 1949.

  • E.J.


    That must have been a loooooong time ago, because as far as i can remember there hasn’t ever been a Costa Rican president who had and “old american car” or would drive his car himself.

    And sorry but…, i can’t feel any pride of C.R. being called “51st state”…

  • Adam Selene

    Jockaira, Costa Rica != Puerto Rico

    Costa Rica rules: everything is allowed until it isn’t, and since you can’t get permission to do anything you do it until you’re told otherwise.

    Costa Rica is very conservative, abortion and in vitro fertilisation (IVF) are both prohibited procedures; so I wouldn’t necessarily respect their comments on stem cell treatments as meaning anything.

  • Daniel

    In 1856 Costa Rica fought against William Walker and the so called “filibusteros”. Basically, Mr. Walker, in name of the US, had this idea of conquering Central America, he’s motto was “to conquer all, or conquer none”. They made their way down until they got to Costa Rica, they lost. Hence Central America is all free republics. So no, we are not even close to being the 51st state.
    Try not to say that out loud if you go to CR, you might no be very popular if you do, to say the least.

  • Tanya Doyle

    This story is completely biased. The Institute of Cellular Medicine (Cellmedicine) has literally turned the life around of a Wichita boy with Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy. This was Ryan Benton and not only was it covered by north American media, but also was reported in the medical journals.

    This is not to mention the over one hundred patients with multiple sclerosis that were successfully treated and many are able to walk now.

    If you look at the Cellmedicine youtube channel you can see not only patients but also many scientific facts.

    Most importantly, the Minister did not close the clinic but ICM made the business decision. This is in the Costa Rican newspaper La Nation.


  • Christine Ball

    the youtube channel is

  • Tanya Doyle

    here is the Cellmedicine publication on heart failure, notice that American Universities are collaborators !

    here is link…

  • Helvetia

    I do not agree with banning stem cell, or in vitro in Costa Rica, it is a time when the science must advance in advantage of the citizens right to health, the fact that some square minded old fashioned public health officers and the catholic church want to ban advances in sciense should not be the rule, it is the necesity of the treatment and the right to access these treatments for the benefit of the patients what should determine wheather these treatments should be approved or disaproved, if there is no proof of harm with stem cell treatment and a person wants to take a risk to cure themselvs its a measured scientific risk one has a right to take that risk, this is more a conflic of power than a conflict of science, unaceptable that a democratic country some foolish goverment agent can ruin the possibility for so many people to find a cure. Costa Rica is still a village and will continue to be until the goverment breaks loose of this old fashioned not effective way of making its decisions. And on the meantime patients will continue to lose the opportunity to cure their disease and live a healthy life, what is good about this? Some one tell me! And I don’t want an answer based on moral issues I mean scientific results, facts, number no BS.

  • Elizabeth

    My daughter has MS and we took her to ICM in Costa Rica for 4 weeks of stem cell treatment. We met many other MS patients while we were there. My daughter could walk when we got to Costa Rica and left there in a wheelchair, that has been 15 months ago. She was much worse off. No MS patient we met in 4 weeks there (and there were many) saw any positive results. They tell you that they are harvesting and multiplying your stem cells (not true) and that they are also using ambiotic stem cells (also not true). All the videos on youtube – You actually only go to ICM clinic twice while you are there. The first day they show you a video talking about things like use sunscreen because the sun is intense there, watch out for pick pocket, etc. Then they take you in a room by yourself and film an interview. They never see you again until the day before you leave when they bring you back there to do the exit interview. That’s what gets on Youtube. We had heard about the pep talk and coaching they give you right before they do the exit interview, along with how to dress and ladies, put your make up on and fix your hair. My daughter refused to do the exit interview because she knew she would be telling the public lies if they coaxed her into saying that she had seen any improvement at all. The oppositve was true. ICM is a broker to get business to Costa Rica. No doctor of theirs ever touches you. They will always be at the hospital when you are having your procedures done. They will have an ICM doctor there just standing around, but we figured out in a hurry that they make sure to never even touch a patient. Why is that? Why are they there? It’s a scam and they not only dont help people, they harm them.

  • Daniel Faiella

    Elizabeth, you are telling a LIE!!! I would know because I took my Autistic son to ICM in Costa Rica 4 times! Here is a FOX News interview my son’s American pediatrician did after his treatment!

  • Jeff Kopp

    Daniel, so has Costa Rica then changed its decision to not allow stem cell treatments? I can only assume if you’re continuing to take your son there that the Costa Rican government is no longer preventing the clinic from treating patients. Please update us. Thanks!


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!


80beats is DISCOVER's news aggregator, weaving together the choicest tidbits from the best articles covering the day's most compelling topics.

See More

Collapse bottom bar