Chinese hotel manager Hong Chun had trouble using chopsticks after a minor stroke and sought treatment at a large Shanghai hospital where doctors injected what they said were donor stem cells into his spinal cord and buttocks, according to his father and cousin.
Leaving hospital the next day, Hong, 27, fell so ill he had to be taken off the train and rushed to another hospital. Doctors were unable to save him and he was declared brain dead before dying a month later.
Desperate for help, patients with incurable diseases are admitting themselves into hospitals in China for “stem cell therapies,” but experts say such treatments are backed by little or no scientific evidence and are at best experimental.
Some of these cases involve large general hospitals where patients pay thousands, even tens of thousands, of US dollars for treatments that are advertised online. Patients have come away with little or no improvement and a number have died, according to patients, doctors and relatives of patients.
Hong paid 30,000 yuan (US$4,696) to the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) 455 PLA Hospital in Shanghai for the treatment last year, according to hospital receipts.
His father, Hong Gensho, travelled to Shanghai to seek an explanation. Hospital administrators told him his son didn’t die in their hospital, paid him 80,000 yuan (US$12,523) and told him not to pursue the matter.
“I am miserable, it’s like my son was worth only 80,000 yuan. It’s not about money. Our human rights, our place in this society, are not respected. I am devastated. If he hadn’t sought treatment, he would not have died,” the elder Hong, 61, said.
“I can’t get my son back, but people must know about these stem cell therapies and no one must be deceived,” he added.
Experts have raised the alarm on patients turning up at clinics and hospitals in China, Mexico, India, Turkey, Russia and elsewhere for stem cell therapies that have not undergone clinical trials and which are not recognized as standard treatment.
Patients often pay fees of US$20,000 and more for such therapies after exhausting conventional treatments.
“Stem cell tourism is regarded as ethically problematic because patients receive unproven therapies from untrustworthy sources,” David Resnik at the US National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and Zubin Master at the University of Alberta in Canada wrote in a paper published in the journal European Molecular Biology Organisation.
Echoing the same concerns, George Daley at the Harvard Stem Cell Institute and Harvard Medical School said he was swamped by enquiries from patients asking about therapies in China and Brazil for diseases from Alzheimer’s to spinal cord injuries.
“What I’m talking about are the less legitimate treatments that have not even undergone clinical trials but are directly marketed therapies ... We really have no idea how to use stem cells for these treatments,” Daley said.
When contacted, a director at the PLA 455 Hospital, who declined to be identified, said: “There are always good and bad outcomes. No therapy can guarantee success to everyone ... Besides, you don’t have a better alternative.”
“As for patients dying, all deaths must be investigated. What caused the death? If our treatment caused the death, the patient [relatives] can seek redress. If it is a death caused by old age and sickness, then there is nothing I can say,” he added.
China’s Ministry of Health did not respond to questions on stem cell therapies being offered in the country.
Suffering from late-stage liver cirrhosis caused by a lifelong hepatitis B virus infection, Fan Hongkun was led to believe her body would spontaneously grow a healthy liver once stem cells were transplanted.
“We saw the therapy advertised online and talked to the doctor over the phone. He said stem cells were like seeds, after being planted on a liver, they grow, divide and spread and finally form a healthy liver,” said Fan’s son, Zhou Junjie.
Fan, 63, was so convinced, she admitted herself into Beijing Military General Hospital, whose Web site still carries information on the stem cell therapies it offers.
“My mother said the PLA does not lie. That’s why she trusted them,” Zhou said.
Doctors there took her off the drug lamivudine for four weeks to “prepare her for the stem cell therapy.” But she fell into a coma before doctors could treat her.
Sold under the brand Epivir by GlaxoSmithKline PLC , lamivudine minimizes liver damage by blocking the hepatitis B virus from replicating. Fan’s family learned later from other doctors that she suffered a sudden surge of the virus after she stopped her medication, which pushed her into a coma and killed her.
According to documents, her family sued the hospital, but the case was dismissed by a Chinese court.
When contacted, a doctor at the hospital, who declined to be identified, said the entire procedure to transplant stem cells into a patient’s liver takes only a day.
“We extract the patient’s bone marrow cells and isolate the stem cells, which are then inserted into the liver,” the doctor said. “We extract bone marrow cells in the morning and in the afternoon we inject them [stem cells] into the liver. Yes, all it takes is a day. Very fast.”
Advertisements for these treatments remain on the hospital’s Web site.
In Ireland, many patients have returned from treatments abroad with no improvement, but they are less willing to talk.
“Virtually none will go on record to state they have been conned. This is mainly because many patients have serious immediate health concerns and they need to focus on that,” said Stephen Sullivan, chief scientific officer of the Irish Stem Cell Foundation.
“Patients are also reluctant to come forward as they are embarrassed at spending lots of money against professional medical advice. Some patients will even claim improvement when there is no measurable improvement,” he added.
Researchers believe regenerative medicine will be a powerful form of therapy in the future. Stem cells are immature, master cells in the body that can grow into any kind of human cell or tissue. Scientists are exploring how to use them to treat a variety of diseases and disorders, including cancer, diabetes and injuries.
However, for now, they stress that only one type of stem cell therapy has been proven to work.
“Only bone marrow transplants for diseases such as leukemia, lymphoma are backed by solid evidence and are well-established clinical procedures. The others are not up to that level,” said David Siu, clinical associate professor at the cardiology division of Hong Kong’s Queen Mary Hospital.
“There is evidence that certain stem cells can grow into new tissue, but do they provide a therapeutic effect? We don’t have the evidence yet. Some are in clinical research,” he said.
For the conditions highlighted in this article — disability from strokes and liver cirrhosis — experts say there are no proven stem cell treatments.
In their paper, Resnik and Master said while most countries had rules governing research on people and medical malpractice, they did not apply directly to stem cell therapy. When doctors encounter strict regimes, they can simply move to other countries with more permissive legal environments.
Experimental stem cell therapies, however, may be legitimately offered to patients, but these must be carried out within the framework of clinical trials that are approved by regulatory boards that ensure ethical standards are met.
“When experimental stem cell therapy is used on patients, it is not performed on an ad-hoc basis, but within the framework of a proper clinical trial prepared beforehand,” Siu said. “It has to follow a rigorous methodology: What are the risks, what can and cannot be done? If the results are negative, what are the rescue and safety measures?”
Sullivan urged patients to be on the lookout for scams. Suspicious signs include being asked for large sums of money up front, being told there are no risks and being offered no post-therapy care.
Patients should be told how they will be treated, what stem cells are used and where they come from. They should not accept any therapy based on hearsay, or without the treatment being validated at least in part by peer review, he said.
Resnik and Master urged stem cell scientists, who have control over stem cell lines, to help stop these scams by not releasing such materials to doctors or clinics if they cannot produce proof of conducting a genuine clinical trial.
“This would ensure that the stem cells and other materials are going to be used in the course of responsible biomedical research, a legally sanctioned clinical trial or in responsible medical innovation,” they said.
Additional reporting by Julie Steenhuysen, Zoey Zhang, Viola Ho and Li Hui
For the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), China’s “century of humiliation” is the gift that keeps on giving. Beijing returns again and again to the theme of Western imperialism, oppression and exploitation to keep stoking the embers of grievance and resentment against the West, and especially the US. However, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) that in 1949 announced it had “stood up” soon made clear what that would mean for Chinese and the world — and it was not an agenda that would engender pride among ordinary Chinese, or peace of mind in the international community. At home, Mao Zedong (毛澤東) launched
With a new White House document in May — the “Strategic Approach to the People’s Republic of China” — the administration of US President Donald Trump has firmly set its hyper-competitive line to tackle geoeconomic and geostrategic rivalry, followed by several reinforcing speeches by Trump and other Cabinet-level officials. By identifying China as a near-equal rival, the strategy resonates well with the bipartisan consensus on China in today’s severely divided US. In the face of China’s rapidly growing aggression, the move is long overdue, yet relevant for the maintenance of the international “status quo.” The strategy seems to herald a new
To say that this year has been eventful for China and the rest of the world would be something of an understatement. First, the US-China trade dispute, already simmering for two years, reached a boiling point as Washington tightened the noose around China’s economy. Second, China unleashed the COVID-19 pandemic on the world, wreaking havoc on an unimaginable scale and turning the People’s Republic of China into a common target of international scorn. Faced with a mounting crisis at home, Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) rashly decided to ratchet up military tensions with neighboring countries in a misguided attempt to divert the
Toward the end of former president Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) final term in office, there was much talk about his legacy. Ma himself would likely prefer history books to enshrine his achievements in reducing cross-strait tensions. He might see his meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) in Singapore in 2015 as the high point. However, given his statements in the past few months, he might be remembered more for contributing to the breakup of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT). We are still talking about Ma and his legacy because it is inextricably tied to the so-called “1992 consensus” as the bedrock of his