Desperate Australians with chronic diseases are paying up to $60,000 to rogue therapists for experimental and potentially risky stem cell treatments which have have no guarantee of working.
The use of stem cells has created a new field, regenerative medicine, but the hype and promise of cures or the growing of new organs or the replacement of ageing cells has created a thriving underground market, both here an in other countries, for unproven treatments.
Up to 60 Australian clinics are offering these stem cell therapies to treat everything from cancer to autism and Alzheimer’s disease, according to the Australian Academy of Science which says there are regulatory loopholes allowing this to happen.
“One downside of the excitement around stem cells is that public expectations can be falsely raised,” says Professor Richard Harvey, co-chair of a report investigating the potential of stem cell therapy in Australia.
“Without more clinical trials to test new treatments in Australia, patients may be tempted to seek out unproven therapies, at home or overseas.”
Could make people sicker
Theses treatments can cost between $10,000 and $60,000, may not work and may even make people even more ill. Some patients have had tumours grow after stem cell treatment.
Science is moving towards the point where it will be possible to take cells from one part of a the body and turn them into any other type of cell to repair tissue damaged by diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease, multiple sclerosis and cardiovascular disease.
The best known example of a proven stem cell therapy is blood stem cell transplantation to treat some blood cancers. Cultured skin grafts are also used for the treatment of burns and for wound repair.
And this use of stem cells is becoming big business, with more than 700 companies globally trying to commercialise regenerative medicine.
In Australia, ASX-listed companies such as Mesoblast have made strong advances in finding ways to treat arthritis, inflammatory ailments, cardiovascular disease and back pain.
While mainstream players such as Mesbloast go the route of clinical trials and approvals from authorities, some clinicians are servicing desperate people looking for cures.
Private medical practices
According to the report, The Stem Cell Revolution: Lessons and Imperatives for Australia, an increasing number of private medical practices and clinicians in Australia are marketing stem cell-based interventions for a range of chronic diseases.
“For the most part, these interventions are offered as ‘innovative’ or ‘experimental’ therapies to patients suffering from chronic and debilitating illnesses, many of whom are vulnerable and are not getting what they want from conventional medical therapy,” the report says.
“Strikingly, these commercially offered interventions typically provide limited or no relevant peer-reviewed scientific evidence to support commercial application of the intervention.”
The report presents a roadmap for how Australia can safely take stem cell research from the laboratory bench to the hospital bed and “better regulate rogue stem cell therapists offering unproven and possibly risky therapies for commercial gain”.
Making organs in a dish
The key recommendations include clinical trials as the main route to prove the effectiveness of possible new treatments, a national centre to help accelerate the translation of clinical discoveries and stem cell banks with relevant clinical and genomics data to help research.
“We can make organs in a dish and correct disease-causing genetic defects in a patient’s own cells: it’s an exciting time for stem cell researchers and new breakthroughs are making headlines almost daily,” says Professor Richard Harvey.
“We must continue to strategically support this vital area, and see it as priority area of research for Australia if we are to reap the benefits for humanity, save on our healthcare bill, and continue to be a world leader.”
The report is based on a think tank convened by the Australian Academy of Science last year with support from the Theo Murphy (Australia) Fund.