Experts fear that a Victorian man with leukaemia may be the first Australian ''infected'' with cancer after treatment at a private overseas stem cell therapy centre.
Stem cell specialists and patient support groups are calling for more public education about the dangers of such services, saying they get hundreds of calls a year from people considering using them - and the numbers are rising.
The companies advertise on the internet and via local information sessions, offering injections of foetal stem cells and stem cells extracted from the patient's spinal cord. They claim to treat conditions such as Alzheimer's, multiple sclerosis, diabetes, autism and spinal injury.
Private, largely unregulated clinics in Asia and Europe charge tens of thousands of dollars plus travel costs. However few have published, clinical proof of their efficacy, relying instead on slick websites and individual testimonies.
Advocacy groups for people targeted as possible clients will meet in Canberra today to discuss how to protect people from being emotionally and financially exploited.
The stem cell treatments ranged in quality and safety but very few, if any, offered genuine hope, said Dr Kirsten Herbert, a hematologist at the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre and clinical adviser to the Australian Stem Cell Centre (ASCC).
''One man in Queensland paid $40,000 for a treatment [at a private German clinic] and was told he needed two or three more [visits] for a treatment that I cannot imagine, even with the most blue-sky open mind, could have helped him,'' she said.
''But they will take his money and not do anything to look after him when he leaves. If we practised a treatment like that we would be disbarred.''
Dr Herbert plans next month to investigate the case of a Victorian man being treated for leukaemia, which was diagnosed after his recent return from overseas stem cell therapy.
She said it was difficult to prove a link, but there was an international precedent: in February the journal PLoS Medicine reported the case of a teenage Israeli boy who developed brain tumours from experimental stem cell injections at a Russian clinic. Dr Herbert said cancer was a rare but possible side-effect of experimental stem cell therapy. ''Most stem cells grow in a culture that is exposed to proteins and hormones that encourage growth, and cancer is out-of-control growth, so these cells have a greater potential to cause cancer,'' she said.
Other risks included contamination from animal products used in laboratory processing of the stem cells, which could introduce Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. Some clinics also instructed patients to go on medication to suppress their immune systems, with potentially dangerous side-effects. ''They don't follow these patients up,'' Dr Herbert said. ''They prescribe and wave goodbye without any duty of care.''
The financial and emotional risks to patients were just as great, Dr Herbert said. ''Most likely, the treatment you are going to receive is not going to work.'' It was important not to demonise people who sought these cures, but instead to help them find the right advice.
Patient advocacy groups are meeting stem cell experts in Canberra today to discuss a co-ordinated approach to public education on overseas experimental treatments.
The ASCC is about to release a patient handbook to help people critically analyse stem cell treatments. It has a list of questions to ask before signing up.
Source: The Age.com.au © 2009 Fairfax Digital (23/11/09)