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Beware stem cell doctors trading on hope

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The nation’s peak medical research organisation has reissued a warning on the dangers posed by unproven stem cell therapies following reports that an Australian woman died in Russia following treatment for a rare neurological disorder.

The National Health and Medical Research Council has cautioned that although stem cell science offers great potential, the safety and effectiveness of most treatments is yet to be scientifically verified.

“An increasing number of people are travelling overseas for stem cell treatments which are unproven, often referred to as ‘stem cell tourism’,” the NHMRC said. “Currently, the only stem cell treatment for which safety and efficacy has been scientifically established is haematopoietic (blood) stem cell transplantation for the treatment of certain blood and immune system disorders.”

The peak body repeated its warning following a report in The Age that Brisbane mother of two Kellie van Meurs travelled to Moscow for stem cell treatment after developing Stiff Person Syndrome, a rare disorder that involves progressive rigidity and stiffening of abdominal and core muscle groups.

Ms van Meurs suffered a heart attack and died on 19 July while undergoing stem cell treatment in Russia, according to The Age.

Peak research group Stem Cells Australia has highlighted concerns that people are being lured into undergoing unproven stem cell treatments both in Australia and overseas, putting their health at risk.

It said people were being enticed with promises of cures backed by glowing patient testimonials, and were often being charged very large sums of up to $60,000 per treatment, which they were frequently encouraged to undergo multiple times.

“The doctors offering unproven stem cell treatments are effectively selling hope, with little or no medical or scientific evidence to back up their claims around both safety and actual benefit,” Stem Cells Australia said.

While much concern had centred on treatments being provided overseas that were not available in Australia, the organisation warned that an increasing number of doctors and clinics were exploiting a loophole in regulations to provide unproven stem cell therapies here.

“The fact that such treatments are being offered in Australia can make it more difficult to determine if the stem cell treatments are legitimate, especially when the treatments use your cells,” SCA said.

It said a controversial loophole excluded unproven stem cell treatments from regulation, as long as they were offered by a registered Australian doctor, used a patient’s own cells and was a one-patient treatment.

While treatments using as person’s own cells were often marketed as being ‘natural’ and posing no risk, “it is important for you to know that even treatments using your own cells can be dangerous. There have been reports of cells from fat growing into bone, as well as deaths reported overseas,” SCA said.

NHMRC Chief Executive Officer Professor Warwick Anderson said only treatments that had been proven to be safe and effective through clinical trials should be made available to the public, and recommended that those interested in undergoing new stem cell treatments investigate the option of taking part in a registered clinical trial.

According to SCA, there are currently more than 200 trials of stem cell treatment underway internationally.

Adrian Rollins