Oklahoma scientists warn of dangers of 'stem cell tourism'

Before any treatment is used on human patients, it should be rigorously tested, say researchers with the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation.
BY GREG ELWELL Published: December 17, 2013

If it seems too good to be true, it often is. But for those with debilitating or terminal diseases, desperation can override caution, said Paul Kincade, Ph.D., director of the Oklahoma Center for Adult Stem Cell Research.

“People with serious diseases such as cancer can be desperate,” said Kincade, who also serves at vice president of research at the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation. “In the quest to live, many will bet the farm. They will travel around the world in search of a cure. Unfortunately, there are a lot of disreputable folks out there willing to take everything they've got.”

“Stem cell tourism” — referring to patients who leave the country to take part in highly experimental treatments — is a growing industry, but it's fraught with peril, he said.

“Some with terminal illnesses might say, ‘I'm already going to die. What's the harm in trying something new if it helps prolong my life?'” Kincade said. “But the treatments received can be harmful. They can shorten an already shortened life. And they can deplete a family's resources or even send them into debt.”

Adult stem cells — cells in the body that can renew themselves and become various other types of cells — hold great promise for changing the way doctors treat disease, he said. Some procedures already have become standard, including bone marrow transplants to treat leukemia and other blood diseases. And while new studies suggest adult stem cells can help fight other ailments, we're not there yet, he said.

The Oklahoma Center for Adult Stem Cell Research, which is funded by the Oklahoma Tobacco Settlement Endowment Trust, currently supports adult stem cell research related to such diseases as diabetes, blindness and cancer.

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