Neurologists warn of the danger of “stem cell tourism”

Enlarge / Skeletal stem cells are shown here in red. (credit: Noriaki Ono)

Stem cells hold the promise of helping us repair tissues damaged by disease or injury. But outside of bone marrow stem cells, the practice remains largely a promise, as we’re just starting clinical trials to determine if we can use these cells effectively. But that hasn’t stopped people from offering stem cell “treatments” with no basis in evidence. Many of the clinics that offer these services are based overseas, leading to what’s been termed “stem cell tourism.” But a number take advantage of ambiguities in Food and Drug Agency regulations to operate in the United States.

A new survey of doctors suggests that a surprising number of their patients are using these services—sometimes with severe consequences. And many doctors don’t feel like they’re prepared to deal with the fallout.

Widespread interest

The work focuses on neurologists, who specialize in treating diseases of the nervous system. These include diseases like Parkinson’s and multiple sclerosis, for which there are few effective treatments—although stem cells have undergone some preliminary tests in the case of Parkinson’s. Given the lack of established options, it wouldn’t be surprising if these patients turned to therapies that haven’t been established, like those involving stem cells.

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