Human Exceptionalism

Beware Untested Stem Cell Treatments in China

The hype generated by ESCR advocates has a lot of ill and injured people very anxious to receive stem cell treatments. China, unsurprisingly, is willing to sell stem cell treatments of the fetal and adult variety–even though most of the treatments provided are far from proven either as to efficicacy or safety. From the story in the Washington Post:

They mortgage their houses and their hometowns hold fundraisers as they scrape together the tens of thousands of dollars needed for travel and the hope for a miracle cure.

Some say they have improved, but the documentation is scant and may involve the placebo effect. Moreover, these treatments can be dangerous:

Noting the lack of evidence, three Western doctors, undertook their own limited study. It involved seven patients with spinal cord injuries who chose to get fetal brain tissue injections at one hospital in China. The study reported “no clinically useful improvements”–even though most patients believed they were better. Five developed complications such as meningitis.

There also seems to be an outsourcing of ethics, here. Aparently American medical groups are doing in China what they would probably be precluded from doing in the States:

Also offering treatments is Tiantan Puhua in Beijing, a joint venture between Asia’s largest neurological hospital and an American medical group. Tiantan’s sunny, sparkling rooms are a far cry from the dour facilities and staff at most Chinese hospitals. Diseases treated there range from stroke and spinal cord injuries to cerebral palsy and ataxia, a rare neurological condition that can cause slurred speech.

If things go wrong, these American groups should be held accountable even if the errors occurred overseas.

I am often contacted privately asking my thoughts about going to China for these treatments. I always advise against it. These technologies are moving toward clinical application where they have a chance of improving people’s conditions. But going too soon, or to a potentially quack clinic, could leave patients worse off than they started. Let’s be careful out there.

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