Oklahoma scientists warn of dangers of “stem cell tourism”

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

“People with serious diseases such as cancer can be desperate,” said Kincade, who also serves at vice president of research at OMRF. “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.”

Patients taking part in “stem cell tourism”—leaving 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 have already 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.

OCASCR, which is funded by a the Oklahoma Tobacco Settlement Endowment Trust (TSET), currently supports adult stem cell research related to such diseases as diabetes, blindness and cancer.

“It may seem like we’ve been talking about regenerative medicine forever, but the truth is, using adult stem cells to repair the body is a very young field,” Kincade said. “Anybody who is willing to take part in new treatments should make sure they’re working with doctors they can trust.”

The treatment should be based on work published in peer-reviewed journals, he said. That’s one sign of legitimacy. Before any treatment is used on human patients, it must undergo rigorous testing in the laboratory and in animal models.

Patients should look for clinical trials, which generally don’t ask participants to pay to take part, he said. Ideally, a patient’s specialist should know about valid clinical trials related to their disease, he said.

“The last thing I want to do is take hope away from those who need it most, and this is a rapidly moving field,” Kincade said. “That’s why OCASCR supports research necessary to build a foundation for future stem cell based treatments.”

Those interested in learning more about adult stem cells can visit www.OCASCR.org.