Stem-cell tourists living in hope: study

With what appears to be thousands of Australians heading overseas for expensive treatments that don't reverse their illnesses, university researchers are trying to understand the ''stem-cell tourism'' phenomenon.

The patients report spending tens of thousands of dollars on airfares and accommodation and up to $40,000 on treatments for conditions such as motor neurone disease, blindness, cerebral palsy, paraplegia and multiple sclerosis.

Despite the limited successes, few report feeling duped by the experience. In fact, counter to a prevalence of negative media reporting on stem-cell tourism - that it is essentially one step up from back-room faith healing - stem-cell tourists overwhelmingly report positive outcomes and an improvement in their wellbeing, be it a lift in energy or mood, and in some cases improved mobility.

Despite the negative reporting, it is thought that the number of people with serious degenerative and crippling conditions heading overseas - mainly to China and India - to undergo unproven stem-cell treatments, is increasing.

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These are the preliminary findings by a joint Australian-British study that is now in its second phase of understanding why people are willing to spend tens of thousands of dollars on treatments that don't deliver a life-changing miracle.

The first phase of the research involved hour-long interviews with 16 Australian patients or carers who had travelled overseas for treatment. Some of them reported paying up to $40,000 for a series of injections, and tens of thousands of dollars more for flights, accommodation and living costs.

The next phase involves interviews with 50 more people who have travelled overseas, and 20 others who considered stem-cell tourism but decided against it.

Next year, Melbourne researchers will also travel to India and China to investigate the disconnection between official restrictions and regulations on treatment, and the reality on the ground.

Lead investigator Alan Petersen, a professor of sociology at Monash University, said stem-cell tourism was an emotionally complex and little-understood phenomenon - and seems to be ''more tied to the politics of hope'' than unrealistic expectations.

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Stem-cell tourists living in hope: study

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