Stem cell ‘tourists’ flock to Australia

Medical tourism based around questionable, potentially dan¬ger¬ous stem cell techniques has migrated from the Third World to the First World, with Australia boasting one of the biggest proliferations of hard-sell clinics.

A global study has found Australia easily surpasses medical tourism hot spots such as Thailand in the number of stem cell practices marketing services directl¬y to customers.

The study, published this morning in the journal Cell Stem Cell, found clinics in developed countries were exploiting regul¬atory gaps to make “an extraordinary and implausible range of claims for their offerings”.

The news has emerged weeks after a coroner slammed a ¬Sydney cosmetic surgeon’s exper¬imental stem cell therapy, which caused the death of Alzheimer’s disease patient Sheila Drysdale, as “quack” medicine.

“People think you’ve got to fly to Russia, The Philippines or somewhere like that to do your stem cell tourism,” said senior auth¬or John Rasko of the University of Sydney.

“Overwhelmingly, the US has the largest preponderance of these clinics, (and) advanced economies like Australia, Germany and Italy are now offering these dubious procedures.”

Professor Rasko said the study, which tallied clinics offering their services online in Eng¬lish, was easily the biggest of its type. On a per-capita basis, Australia had more clinics than the US: only Ireland, Singapore and the tax havens of the Cayman ¬Islands and Bahamas had more.

Anti-ageing and skincare procedures were the most common therapies offered, but clinics were vague about the types of stem cells being used, with more than half not indicating a source.

In June, news emerged of an American stroke victim developing a tumour in his back after stem cell treatments overseas.

Professor Rasko said more such cases were inevitable. “This is an unfettered industry … not properly regulated and this ¬direct-to-consumer marketing will only get worse unless regul¬at¬ors hear this wake-up call.”

In March, the Australian Academy of Science called for the closing of a regulatory loophole that allows “autologous” stem cell procedures using -patients’ own cells.

The Therapeutic Goods Administration has been enquiring into the regulation of autologous stem cell therapies since January last year. In March it said a new consultation paper would be released “soon”.

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