A panel at the Harvard Law School Wednesday discussed the ethical debate over the use of embryonic stem cells in the United States, focusing on the burgeoning controversy surrounding the role of stem cell therapy in medical tourism.
Medical tourism, in which patients travel internationally to gain access to specific health care services, has become increasingly common, panelists said. They said that reasons for medical tourism range from basic hip replacement surgery to black market organ sales. As most stem cell therapies are not approved in the United States, numerous patients are going abroad to countries like China and Russia where treatment is legal.
Panelist I. Glenn Cohen, an assistant professor at the Law School, said that it was probable that a Chinese stem cell facility performs several hundred thousand of these treatments yearly. He said that numerous celebrities, including football quarterback Peyton Manning, have reportedly traveled abroad to receive stem cell treatment not approved by the FDA.
A number of facilities claim to use stem cells to cure a wide array of diseases. University of Alberta law professor Timothy Caulfield, another panelist, pointed out that a simple Google search leads potential patients to a plethora of websites which claim that diseases such as autism and cancer can be cured through stem cell therapy.
“It’s being offered as routine, it’s being offered as safe, it’s being offered as effective,” Caulfield said, citing his own 2008 study on the subject, “Of course, none of them being offered matched what the scientific literature said.”
According to American history professor Jill Lepore, the “hyper-acceleration of enthusiasm” for stem cell therapy is reminiscent of a century ago when science journalism and government funding for science research began to blossom. Lepore pointed out how public excitement over scientific procedures has affected society in the past, popularizing cryonics research and the work of Eugene Steinach, who claimed his vasectomy operation reversed the aging process.
Panelists said that one issue with stem cell tourism is the number of health risks associated with such procedures, citing a number of instances where stem cell therapy caused serious harm.
They also noted that public discussion about stem cell therapy has been markedly positive, lending an air of legitimacy to stem cell therapy that hasn’t been validated by research.
Articles criticizing stem cell tourism, on the other hand, have generally received a less favorable response. Caulfield told the audience that when he co-wrote an article in The Atlantic criticizing stem cell therapy, he was accused as being a “nutball Canadian socialist bioethicist.”
The panelists emphasized that more accurate information should be provided to the public regarding stem cell treatments.