Concerns About Stem Cell Tourism

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Stem Cell Tourism

Stem cells hold incredible promise for generating new therapies for a wide range of diseases. However, that promise doesn’t help people who are sick today, and are looking for cures right now.

International clinics have recognized that need and, unfortunately, have begun advertising unproven therapies at great cost to the patient and at great profit to the clinic. Any internet search can turn up dozens of clinics promising stem cell therapies. But a closer look will often reveal no information about what type of stem cells are being offered. These sites also rely heavily on video testimonials from people soon after the stem cell injections, but little information about how those people fared long-term.

A few recent examples of fraudulent stem cell tourism include a British doctor who, in September, 2010, lost his medical license for injecting patients with stem cells from taken from cows. In other cases, patients have developed tumors from injections of unpurified stem cells.

CIRM co-hosted a panel at the 2010 meeting of the International Society for Stem Cell Research in San Francisco in which members discussed the steps leading to a stem cell therapy, and concerns about stem cell tourism.

At that panel, the ISSCR previewed their new web site designed to help patients and their families assess international clinics advertising stem cell cures.

The ISSCR also has information about the normal testing process that’s involved in verifying that a therapy works and is safe (How Science Becomes Medicine). CIRM also has information about the kinds of research that need to be done before a therapy becomes available: How Stem Cells Become Therapies.

CIRM is also one of 13 organization who issued a joint advisory on stem cell tourism, which addresses questions about how to identify regulated stem cell clinical trials. You can read that advisory here.

What is CIRM doing to accelerate stem cell cures?

At CIRM, we know that “Be patient” is not what any patient wants to hear. That’s why we’re working to speed the normal path from a good idea in the lab to a proven therapy in doctor’s offices.

Working with patient groups

The greatest motivation to get stem cell therapies to patients comes from the patients themselves. That’s why we include patient advocates on our governing board, in our working groups and at our meetings. Advocates on our board ensure that the organization’s focus is on developing cures (See a list of board members). By working closely with advocacy groups throughout the state, we make sure patients have up-to-date information about the progress of our research and have a way of communicating their needs directly to our leaders. You can see resources and patient groups on our stem cell disease pages.

Overcoming obstacles

A great idea in the lab can often run into barriers along the path to the clinic. Rather than waiting to find out what those obstacles will be, CIRM proactively funded a round of grants called the Tools and Technologies Awards that look ahead to what those obstacles might be and funds the solutions now, before they ever stand in the way of a future therapy.

Making the transition

A classic place for an idea to stall is in the transition from laboratory research, which is often federally funded, and clinical trials, often funded by drug companies. In between these two stages come years of preclinical research verifying the idea and ensuring that it appears safe. Rather than losing ideas in what’s come to be called the “Valley of Death”, CIRM funds yearly Early Translational Awards to make sure future therapies are moving toward the clinic rather than foundering between funding mechanisms.

Creating teams

Teams of scientists are needed to usher any future therapy through the arduous testing required before the Food and Drug Administration will approve it for clinical trials. Normally, the components of those teams actually work individually, each requiring separate funding, often replicating work or losing ground through poor communication.

CIRM realized that therapies would get to trial faster if solid, experienced teams agreed in advance to work together, and could focus on the therapy rather than on acquiring funds for the next step. CIRM funds interdisciplinary Disease Teams that pull together the full range of scientists needed to get a therapy into patients. These teams are expected to file for clinical trial approval with the FDA within four years of receiving funding, a veritable scientific sprint compared to the decade or more that the process can sometimes take.

© 2013 California Institute for Regenerative Medicine