The phenomenon of stem cell tourism has been associated with travel to exotic locations such as China, Argentina or Mexico, where commercial clinics offer high hopes, expectations and — sometimes — the idea of miracle treatments for diseases ranging from muscular dystrophy to spinal cord injury, with little accountability.
However, research out June 30 suggests the destinations for such “stem cell tourism” might be changing, as clinics are becoming more common in the United States.
A study published in the journal Cell Stem Cell concluded that Americans don’t have to go abroad to get these treatments. The researchers found at least 351 businesses operating 570 such clinics domestically, and many offer services that claim to treat a wide range of illnesses with a lack of scientific evidence or oversight.
"We’ve been following this for a while … to find 351 distinct businesses, that is an awful lot of businesses making marketing claims about stem cell interventions,” said Leigh Turner, coauthor of the study and a bioethicist at University of Minnesota. “There are businesses operating in the United States that are making marketing claims that are just as problematic as businesses in other countries.”
Stem cells, also known as master cells, are specialized cells in the human body that can multiply and evolve with remarkable potential for healing. For example, blood stem cells have been used for decades with the Food and Drug Administration’s approval to treat leukemia and several blood disorders. More recently, some high-profile experimental therapies have been credited with healing well-known sports figures such as Peyton Manning and Bartolo Colon. But much of this science and understanding is still taking shape, with stem cells sometimes proving difficult to control, and in some instances causing tumors and other adverse outcomes.