The International Society for Stem Cell Research has had enough. When the organization of stem cell scientists met last week in San Francisco, its leaders promised to get serious about unregulated stem cell treatments.
First, society president Irving Weissman declared his intention to “smoke out the charlatans,” New Scientist reported. The ISSCR is investigating its members who provide advice to clinics that offer experimental stem cell treatments (no such treatments have yet received FDA approval).
At a press briefing on 17 June, he revealed that these members are being told to explain their connections with such clinics. Expulsion from the society was a possibility for members who continue to associate themselves with unproven “therapies”, added Sean Morrison of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, a member of the ISSCR board of directors [New Scientist].
A woman with kidney disease has died after receiving an experimental stem cell treatment at a private clinic in Thailand, and a postmortem examination of her kidneys revealed that the treatment was almost certainly responsible for her death. Last week we reported that Costa Rica’s health ministry had closed a stem cell clinic that catered to foreigners, which sparked lively debates around the Internet about whether patients should be able to willingly take on risks associated with experimental treatments. This new case offers a sobering reminder of what can happen when patients travel abroad looking for a miracle cure.
The woman suffered from lupus nephritis, a disease in which the immune system attacks the kidneys. When medications no longer controlled her disease, she went to a still-unnamed clinic in Bangkok where doctors said they could treat her disease using stem cells drawn from her own bone marrow. There was some medical rationale for this:
Bona-fide trials in European clinics about six years ago showed that some people with similar kidney disease benefited if stem cells from their own bone marrow were injected into their blood. The body’s immune system was first deliberately destroyed with powerful immunosuppressive drugs, then the reinjected stem cells helped to stop the attacks on the kidney by rebuilding and rebalancing the immune system. [New Scientist]
However, the Thai clinic didn’t inject the stem cells into the patient’s blood stream, instead they injected them directly into her kidneys. That means the stem cells did nothing to stop the immune system’s attack on the organs–and they instead produced never-before-seen side effects.
Last 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]