Stem cell research is in its relatively early stages. While preclinical research to date holds great promise for treating a range of illnesses in the future there are currently no stem cell therapies that are recommended for people with spinal cord injuries.
The Spinal Cord Injury Network and the ANZ Spinal Cord Society have prepared a statement on “Stem Cell Interventions for Spinal Cord Injury,” which provides our position and general information on aspects of stem cell research. > more
What is stem cell tourism?
Stem cell tourism is when individuals travel overseas to receive stem cell therapies. These stem cell therapies are often expensive and have little, if any, scientific basis. There is no doubt that these treatments are experimental, even if they have been performed many times. The clinics offering these treatments use individual testimonies as “proof.” They use well-designed websites and advertisements that promise recovery to attract vulnerable, often terminally ill, patients. There are reports, commonly in the media, of individuals that have experienced improved function after these treatments. However, these improvements are hard to distinguish from placebo and training effects, which often accompany these treatments. No stem cell therapy has significantly reversed chronic spinal cord injury.
What are the risks of stem cell tourism?
There is great concern that some individuals may be left worse off after undergoing experimental and unproven stem cell therapies. There has been evidence of adverse reactions and many long-term risks are unknown. Some of the negative reactions include a severe immune response, inflammation and infection, all of which may result in death. Commonly, patients are given little if any information on their treatment, including the source of the stem cells. In some cases stem cells from other animals, such as rabbits, are transplanted into patients. This procedure of animal to human transplantation is called xenotransplantation and there are many risks involved. For more information on xenotransplantation please click here. The secrecy that surrounds these stem cell treatments and procedures raises questions. If it really works then why not publish findings in a peer-reviewed journal and share the details with the world?
Another risk is individuals that undergo these experimental treatments may be excluded from future genuine clinical trials. This is due to the unknown long-term consequences of these experimental treatments. Also, if the experimental treatment fails to provide any improvement patients may lose hope and be skeptical of future treatments that have the scientific backing.
Making an informed decision
The Australian Stem Cell Centre has developed a Patient Handbook which helps people make their own decisions about stem cell tourism based on factual and reliable information. > more
The International Society for Stem Cell Research (ISSCR) has also prepared a Handbook to help patients recognise the difference between genuine clinical trials, and speculative "treatments."
More recently, the ISSCR launched a new website "Take a Closer Look at Stem Cells" which aims to assist patients around the world to assess the recent explosion of online claims regarding stem cell treatments. Visitors to this unique website will be able to submit the details of a stem cell treatment provider they have seen advertised on the Internet to find out more. The ISSCR will ask for evidence that the clinic has appropriate oversight and other patient protections in place. The ISSCR will list whether or not stem cell clinics provide this information on the website and the information will be made available to future patients.
Clinical trials are where new treatments, drugs and devices are tested in volunteer patients, to see whether they are safe and effective. Clinical trial research is conducted by experienced medical staff under experimental conditions. On 30 July 2010 US biotech Geron received FDA approval to begin phase 1 clinical trials injecting oligodendrocytes made from human embryonic stem cells into the spinal cord. To obtain approval Geron worked closely with the FDA submitting thousands of pages of pre-clinical data to assure the regulator that the risks of the trial were minimal. The aim of the trial was to test safety in humans following extensive research completed in animal models. This was the first clinical trial anywhere in the world to use cells made from human embryonic stem cells. Geron planned to test its therapy on a small number of patients with complete subacute thoracic spinal cord injuries by injecting the cells into the lesion sites between seven and 14 days after injury. It had selected seven US medical centres to participate in the study over two years. The Geron study of oligodendrocyte progenitor cells derived from an embryonic stem cell line was ended in November 2011 due to financial reasons, after five patients received cells.
Societies and networks
Australasian Society for Stem Cell Research (ASSCR) > more
Australian Stem Cell Centre > more
International Society for Stem Cell Research (ISSCR) > more
New South Wales Stem Cell Network > more
Information on stem cell treatments
Australian Stem Cell Centre - Patient Information Handbook > more
“Beware of Dr Google: Make sure you get the full story on stem cells” by Dr Megan Munsie, Senior Manager, Research and Government, Australian Stem Cell Centre > more
"Hats off to Geron – Safety First" Geron blog, Australian Stem Cell Centre > more
International Society for Stem Cell Research (ISSCR) - A closer look at stem cell treatments > more
Recommendations for publishing case studies of cell transplantation for spinal cord injury > more
Stem cell articles in the media warning against experimental stem cell therapies
ABC News - Experts warn against stem cell tourism > more
The Australian - Rabbit fetus therapy risky scientists warn > more
Health warnings on Asian stem cell treatments > more
Human tests set for stem cells > more
Stem cell clinics ripping off patients, bullying scientists > more
Blinded by Science - Modern-day hucksters are cashing in on vulnerable patients > more
Stem cells: distinguishing hype and hope > more
Opinion: Reforming Stem Cell Tourism > more