One of Barack Obama's first acts as president was lifting the U.S. restrictions on medical research using embryonic stem cells. Scientists think that the cells, some of which are controversially harvested from aborted human embryos, could potentially be used to treat conditions including diabetes, Parkinson's disease, heart disease, and spinal-cord injuries. But after eight years of the research ban and extensive testing still required -- not to mention legal challenges from the Christian right -- stem-cell treatments are still years away. Some patients have apparently decided not to wait.
In August, a panel of British stem-cell researchers issued a report warning of the explosive growth of stem-cell tourism -- desperate patients traveling abroad to receive unproven and potentially dangerous treatments. Germany, China, Thailand, and Mexico, where the treatments are legal, are particularly popular destinations, according to the report, but the scientists say there might be as many as 700 clinics around the world providing stem-cell therapy.
Treatments can cost tens of thousands of dollars, but regulations are often lax and the consequences can be tragic. In one case highlighted by the British experts, an Israeli boy seeking treatment for a spinal injury in Russia developed multiple tumors. In another, a 46-year-old woman undergoing treatment for lupus in Thailand died of kidney failure.
In June, Costa Rica, a popular destination for Americans seeking cheap medical treatments of all kinds, shut down an unauthorized stem-cell clinic operated by a U.S. entrepreneur that had attracted about 400 foreign patients since 2006, according to Reuters. (The government in San José was reportedly under heavy pressure from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.) Clinical trials on the effectiveness of stem-cell treatments are still ambiguous, but plenty of patients were willing to come forward to support the clinic. One California woman who says she started to regain feeling in her legs after a $30,000 treatment for multiple sclerosis summed up the feelings of many patients, telling Reuters, "I didn't have anything to lose."
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