Patients warned over 'unorthodox' use of stem cells overseas
DESPERATE patients hoping to find relief in stem-cell therapy were yesterday warned to be wary of "extravagant" claims made for "unorthodox" treatments offered overseas.
Scientists are currently working to develop new treatments based on the potential of stem cells - the body's master cells.
But experts have now warned that while stem cells offer much promise, there are some clinics making claims about treatments which do not stand up to scientific scrutiny. In particular they highlighted treatments for multiple sclerosis (MS) and cosmetic skin techniques.
In a letter to a newspaper, the experts wrote: "We advise those who are desperate for cures or attracted to cosmetic therapy to be wary of claims made by clinics offering these treatments."
The letter was signed by Professor Colin Blakemore, chief executive of the Medical Research Council, Lord Patel, of the UK Stem Cell Bank, and Simon Gillespie, chief executive of the MS Society, and supported by 14 charities and research-funders.
They said that the UK was establishing itself as a world leader in stem-cell research "thanks to the quality of its science base and its supportive political and funding environment".
In the UK stem-cell treatments currently approved include use in skin grafting, along with the transplantation of bone marrow or stem cells from umbilical-cord blood to treat certain cancers.
The letter said: "We welcome efforts to translate research findings as quickly as possible into clinical benefits - but only in the context of rigorous scientific scrutiny. In the case of these unorthodox 'stem-cell' treatments, the protocols and results have not been published or subject to independent review."
The experts said there was no evidence to support claims that stem cells could safely repair tissue damage caused by MS.
"Indeed, there is concern that these unproven treatments could be dangerous, potentially exposing patients to the risk of uncontrolled and inappropriate tissue generation," they said.
The experts highlighted the cases of two clinics offering such treatments in the Netherlands which are now under investigation. They urged anyone considering travelling overseas for treatments not available in the UK to speak to their doctor and to weight the risks carefully.
Earlier this year Carole Westwell from Balmacqueen, on Skye, said her husband's life had been transformed after he travelled to Ireland for stem-cell treatment for MS.
Mr Gillespie, from the MS Society, said the charity had more than 1 million invested in stem-cell research in MS and believed it held great potential.
"But there is - as yet - no scientific evidence to support a stem- cell treatment in humans to repair MS damage. Media coverage about the clinics in Rotterdam and elsewhere has raised people's hopes, but there is currently no scientific data to suggest these treatments work."
'Pain-free for first time in years'
MULTIPLE sclerosis patient Mark Westwell had been in pain since 1994 until he travelled to Ireland earlier this year for a controversial stem-cell treatment.
The 45-year-old was diagnosed with MS in 1987 and was later confined to a wheelchair.
His wife, Carole, said his condition changed significantly after having the treatment and he got very emotional before managing to say "No pain... no pain".
"When Mark woke up the next morning he was without pain for the first time since 1994," she said.
"The effect the treatment has had on him has been shockingly dramatic. And he has had no pain since."
The couple decided to visit a GP surgery in Cork which was offering the treatment after reading about the apparent effects. The therapy is not available in the UK.
• More information on MS is available by visiting www.mssocietyscotland.org.uk or calling 0808 800 8000.
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