Mon, Sep 26, 2011 - Page 9 News List

Patients pay with their lives for unproven stem cell therapies

Despite being heralded by some as an almost universal cure-all, most stem cell treatments have not been tested and are taking lives, instead of saving them

By Tan Ee Lyn  /  Reuters, HONG KONG

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.

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