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Posted on March 2, 2009 at 8:00 AM
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Southern Illinois Man Seeks Stem Cell Cure in China. That’s the headline. From KFVS12, Live from the Heartland. Meanwhile, Midwesterners are raffling off big ticket items to make it possible for Chuck Melton, sufferer of a spinal cord injury, to make multiple trips to China, to receive umbilical cord stem cell treatments not available in the United States.

The story reports that he feels better after his first trip to China, and while he dreams of one day walking his daughters down the aisle, he knows that he should be realistic, and that after maybe six or seven trips to China perhaps he will feel good enough to someday pursue the same treatments here in the US.

Okay–have I rattled off enough problems enough in this narrative for you, yet? This story is straight from the news article, which in and of itself, reads like a giant ad for the Chinese stem cell company doing the research, in my humble opinion. Go to China and get the therapy that the Americans who have been slacking for 8 years can’t give you.

That aside, clearly the expectations set by the Chinese stem cell company is that these medical tourists will receive on-going therapy through repeat trips to China–and these trips don’t come cheaply. Plus, I’m wondering how much research Mr. Melton did into these clinical trials–I’m guessing more than the average research subject does in order to find them–but do the Chinese reveal all the data? If they are run like the typical US clinical trial, all of the information about how the trial is going would not be available to Mr. Melton. Even the intricacies about how clinical trials are approved in China might be more information than even a very sophisticated research participant could comprehend. The differences between the Chinese and US research system, I’m not an expert on China and will not purport to be one here, I’m told are more than a few.

Then I worry about the “copycats” out there who will say, “Chuck Melton did it, so why can’t I?” They will begin squirreling away their extra nickels to send their uncle or father off to China for what are–unproven, of unknown efficacy stem cell trials in other countries whose regulations or research is simply a year or two ahead of ours or may be simply more lax–whatever the case may be.

This is the problem with medical tourism. We’ve seen it with organ transplantation, and now we are seeing it with stem cell “therapy”. To see it heralded like this so nakedly in even a local news report, makes me cringe. Of course, one wishes the patient the best and one hopes that these trials will yield precious data and maybe someday cures.

Summer Johnson, PhD

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