Posted on 22 October 2009.
Alex Leff recently reported in the Global Post that Americans are coming to Costa Rica for stem cell treatments, which in the U.S. are often prohibitively expensive, if they are available at all. Treatments not yet approved in the U.S. can often be had at hospitals and clinics abroad, from China to Costa Rica.
Some stem cell scientists in the U.S. say these treatments offer false hope to patients desperate enough to take a chance on techniques that have not been scientifically proven.
Costa Rican doctors like Dr. Fabio Solano, who directs the stem cell institute at San Jose’s CIMA Hospital, disagree. Solano says they’re providing medical tourists with groundbreaking (and affordable) treatments. Dr. Solano estimates that his team has treated as many as 400 patients with procedures that involve stem cells.
Costa Rica is known for its high-quality medical care. More and more medical tourists come here for surgery and other treatments that they can’t afford back home.
And despite the naysayers, success stories about stem cell treatments in Costa Rica abound, from 8-year-old Kenneth Kelley receiving stem cell treatment for autism to Trish Stressman seeking treatment for her chest-down paralysis, to Jennifer Blankenship, who received treatment for her multiple sclerosis (MS).
But many doctors urge caution. Dr. Jack Kessler, an expert in stem cell research at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago, warns, “The lay press is unfortunately replete with many overstatements and misconceptions about what can be accomplished in the short term by stem cell biology,”
FDA says don’t go abroad for treatment, but are they tarring all non-U.S. facilities with the same brush?
CNN reports that the International Society of Stem Cell Researchers and the FDA discourage Americans from traveling overseas for stem cell therapy. Clinics are operating worldwide–in China, Russia, Mexico, and Costa Rica, among other places.
I fear ISSCR and the FDA may be tarring too many countries, hospitals, and procedures with the same brush. I have personal experience of Costa Rican (private) hospitals and can attest to their quality. As for providing treatments not allowed in the U.S., I’m not an expert, but have read a bit about the lengthy (and sometimes arbitrary) review process that new drugs and procedures must go through in the U.S.
There’s also the issue of stem cell research and treatment being a political hot potato in the U.S., which has probably set medical advances back years, if not decades. It wasn’t until March of this year that President Obama issued an executive order that lifted Bush-era restrictions on federal funding for stem cell research.
Stem cell research is also a political issue in Catholic Costa Rica, where researchers are not allowed to work with human embryos (even in vitro fertilization is against the law). Doctors and researchers in Costa Rica have supposedly done an end run around that prohibition by working with “adult” stem cells (derived from tissue including body fat and umbilical blood or tissue).
About stem cell treatment
Wikipedia defines stem cell treatments as “a type of cell therapy that introduce new cells into damaged tissue in order to treat a disease or injury. Many medical researchers believe that stem cell treatments have the potential to change the face of human disease and alleviate suffering. The ability of stem cells to self-renew and give rise to subsequent generations that can differentiate offers a large potential to culture tissues that can replace diseased and damaged tissues in the body, without the risk of rejection and side effects.”