Stem cell tourism takes advantage of patients, says law professor

Patients falling prey to 'stem cell tourism' may pay tens of thousands of dollars for procedures that carry no promise of success or carry grievous risks of failure, says law and bioethics Professor Alta Charo.

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Desperate patients are easy prey for unscrupulous clinics offering untested and risky stem cell treatments, says UW-Madison law and bioethics Professor Alta Charo, who is studying "stem cell tourism."

Stem cells are cells that can form many types of cells in the body, and that makes them inherently promising and dangerous. "Stem cell tourism" refers to people traveling, both within the U.S. and abroad, in pursuit of advertised stem cell therapies to purportedly treat a variety of medical conditions.

Alta Charo

"The evidence for therapeutic use of stem cells is very limited, except for bone marrow stem cells, but patients all over the world are convinced stem cells will cure their disease," says Charo. "While there are some very promising results in the early clinical trials for stem cell therapies using embryonic and other kinds of stem cells, the 'treatments' being advertised by these clinics are dubious, mostly ineffective, and sometimes positively harmful.

"Patients are being hoodwinked, but there are dilemmas about tackling (the 'treatments') at regulatory or political levels."

The outrage over failures in stem cell tourism is limited, Charo says. Patients may pay tens of thousands of dollars for procedures that may carry no promise of success or carry grievous risks of failure. "Most people have no reason to pay attention, and those who are paying attention are sick, so they are focused on trying anything," Charo says. "If it does not work, they are already in a bad position with plenty to think about."

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Stem cell tourism takes advantage of patients, says law professor

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