Stem cell tourism warning

AM - Saturday, 23 June , 2007 08:14:25

Reporter: Ashley Hall

ELIZABETH JACKSON: For some time now, doctors have been issuing warnings about the potential risks associated with travelling overseas for cosmetic surgical procedures. They say tourists hoping to sip daiquiris on a tropical beach after a quick tummy tuck might find themselves in difficulties if they suffer complications.

And now, scientists are worried about the magic cure lure of the stem cell.

Patients with spinal injuries and terminal conditions are said to travelling to India and China in the hope of a miracle cure.

Ashley Hall reports.

ASHLEY HALL: For many people with a terminal illness or a spinal injury, stem cell research promises a glimmer of hope.

And with the help of the internet, that glimmer becomes a beacon, drawing patients to clinics in India and China which boast of breakthrough treatments.

PAUL VERMA: With a lot of the early research, we just don't know of the long-term consequences of such treatments are.

ASHLEY HALL: Dr Paul Verma of the Monash Institute of Medical Research.

The procedures on offer include transplanting both adult and embryonic stem cells into patients.

PAUL VERMA: That is really quite scary because we have no idea what these cells are doing. We do know that in animal models, if you transplant embryonic stem cells you can develop tumours and teratomas. And so, this is a major concern.

In backyard laboratories, if people are growing these cells, we don't really know what cells they're putting into the patient, we don't know whether they're true embryonic or adult stem cells because we don't even know if any of these people who do some of this work actually understand anything about the field.

ASHLEY HALL: But if a patient is already facing a terminal illness, why shouldn't they be allowed to choose for themselves what treatment they take?

PAUL VERMA: You do emphasise with the patients, you realise there may not be any current cure or even a way to alleviate the symptoms of whatever their diseases are. However, these sorts of stem cell treatments, which are totally uncontrolled, are dangerous, not just for them, but for people in general.

We don't want to go back to the dark ages where people would bleed patients when they had an illness and, you know, didn't have a cure for them.