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Warnings about stem cell therapy tourism

| Source: abc.net.au

MARK COLVIN: Australian scientists are worried about what they describe as a growing industry of stem cell tourism.

More and more people suffering spinal cord injuries, paralysis, cancer and other conditions are travelling to India and China for stem cell treatment.

One Indian Doctor who offers foreign patients embryonic stem cell therapy is speaking at a fundraising event in Melbourne tomorrow night.

Geeta Shroff says she has successfully treated more than 300 patients. But scientists here are urging her to provide clinical proof that her treatment works.

Jennifer Macey reports.

JENNIFER MACEY: Perry Cross was 19 when he broke his neck in a rugby union game in Brisbane in 1994.

PERRY CROSS: When I first was injured they told my parents look Perry might not live through the night but you know my condition was so bad the chance I could have swelling and bleeding at the base of my brain I could have died the night of my accident.

And I survived that they said look the best outcome he’ll probably 12 months and he’ll probably live the rest of his life in a hospital bed.

I got of hospital and they said look 10 years life expectancy. You’ve done well mate, but 10 years is about all you’re gonna get. Well it’s been 14.

JENNIFER MACEY: The injury left him a quadriplegic, wheelchair bound and unable to breathe without a Ventilator.

After hearing from a friend about stem cell treatment program in India Perry Cross travelled to New Delhi earlier this year seeking help from Dr Geeta Shroff.

An IVF expert, Dr Shroff says she’s developed embryonic stem cell lines to treat people with paralysis, Parkinson’s and Motor neurone disease.

Over the next three months, Perry Cross received regular injections of embryonic stem cells at a cost of about $58,000.

PERRY CROSS: The first six weeks I was noticing some shoulder shrug in my shoulder muscles and there were a few changes happening and then amazingly on the 17th of April, was the day I started to breathe, I noticed that I could move my diaphragm. Ironically, my injury occurred on the 17th of April 1994, so it was 14 years to the day that I started to breathe again.

JENNIFER MACEY: Perry Cross is speaking at a stem cell research fundraising dinner in Melbourne tonight along with Dr Geeta Shroff.

He’s not the only Australian to have sought her treatment in New Delhi.

And many have come back with small success stories.

A Brisbane man suffering blindness says he has improved sight and a Melbourne Paraplegic says he’s regained feeling in his legs.

But Australian scientists are sceptical.

They’re concerned that Dr Geeta Shroff has not made her results or methods public.

Professor Alan Mackay-Sim is the Director of the National Centre for Adult Stem Cell Research at Griffith University.

ALAN MACKAY-SIM: I’m a scientist I have an open mind about that. They may be positive results, but the way that medical treatments are these days validated is to do a proper clinical trials were you can really test whether or not there is an effect.

A lot of treatments have in the past thought to be real treatments have turned out to be placebo effects for example; you know that’s where just the belief that someone is getting treated has enough to change their biology in some way.

And that’s why clinical trials are done to try and sort out what is the effect. Is it just the attention of being treated versus the effect of proposed treatment?

JENNIFER MACEY: Stem cell treatment isn’t available in Australia and scientists say it will take years of animal testing and human clinical trials before it’s used on patients.

Bob Williamson is a Professor of Medical genetics at the University of Melbourne. He says he and his colleagues are also frustrated by the slow pace research.

BOB WILLIAMSON: In Australia we have a very, very rigorous regulation system before any new medicine, any new form of therapy can be tried. Overseas they’re often not as careful which means they can go ahead more quickly but there are also more risks. More risks of things going wrong.

The particular risk that really worries me in this case, is the risk that cells which come from another person, from an embryo, from a foetus, from cord blood, may be rejected by the patient.

JENNIFER MACEY: Professor Williamson warns that patients who do travel overseas are not only risking their health but their wallets.

BOB WILLIAMSON: We have heard reports of some people who are charging outrageous sums of money and who seem to be much more interested in financial rewards than in treating patients.

JENNIFER MACEY: But quadriplegic Perry Cross says he’s angry and frustrated that he can’t get stem cell treatment in Australia.

PERRY CROSS: When you’ve been in a wheel chair for 14 years, do you think it really worries what treatment I receive?

How long can I wait for these doctors to get their finger out and come up with an answer. These doctors that are criticising it are happy to criticise, but where’s their answer? You know, what have they got to offer?

MARK COLVIN: Quadriplegic Perry Cross ending that report by Jennifer Macey.

Reporter: Jennifer Macey


  1. Stem cell scientists have issued a warning to patients about the potentially grave risks of traveling internationally in search of untested stem cell treatments. At their annual meeting in Cairns this week, members of the International Society for Stem Cell Research discussed the possibility of issuing guidelines for patients who hoped treatments being offered in countries such as China and India would help with spinal injuries and other conditions.

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