The Niche

Hungary detains four for illegal stem-cell treatments in private clinic

Hungarian police have detained four people for planning to carry out untested, illegal stem cell treatments, according to Reuters.

It is unclear what diseases were being treated, but one Hungarian, two Ukranians, and an American were detained just as they were about to treat a new patient. The American had reportedly been running the clinic in Hungary since 2007. A Ukranian prepared the stem cell injections, and patients generally paid $25,000.

The Reuters report says that it is unclear whether the cells were derived from fetuses or embryos. However, I suspect that they were fetal stem cells, based on reports from other clinics.

For instance, a Ukranian company that called itself “EmCell” after embryonic stem cells in fact used stem cells from aborted fetuses. (See Boston Globe’s Absence of data on clinic’s therapies provokes skepticism ) The Israeli boy who developed tumours of female cells in his brain and spinal cord after his parents took him to Russia for stem-cell treatment also received injections of fetal stem cells. (See Unregulated stem cell transplant causes tumours)

Fetal stem cells and embryonic stem cells are very different. Fetal stem cells come from terminated pregnancies, in which fetuses have and the stem cells are different according to the fetal organ from which they are taken (Liver, brain and blood are most commonly used.)

There are clinical trials underway using fetal stem cells that have been approved by regulatory authorities in the US and UK. However, unregulated clinics have been strongly condemned for charging patients to receive injections of fetal neural stem cells. Most researchers believe that these unregulated treatments use cells that have not been sufficiently purified or studied.

Embryonic stem cells come from destroying microscopic 5-day old embryos that have never been used to start a pregnancy. (The embryos are created in a laboratory). Cells from these embryos have not begun to form any organs whatsoever, and have been shown capable (in mice) of becoming every specific types of cells found in any organ. No embryonic stem cells are in clinical trials, but the FDA has approved a small trial using neural cells derived from ES cells for treating patients with spinal cord injuries. It is expected to start sometime this year.

While cell therapies carry risks, scientists are very concerned about unproven, unregulated treatments in private clinics. Generally, they raise false hopes and waste time and money and carry out work in such a way that measuring (or improving) benefits is impossible. At worst, they harm patients. The International Society for Stem Cell Research has a list of questions for patients to ask clinicians about unproven treatments.

See commentary Stem cell clinical trials must be closely monitored

See a stakeholder analysis in Off-shore stem cell treatments need sensitive regulation

Read about the release of guidelines for clinical translation of research in Stick to the guidelines and fewer get hurt

Read about researchers’ decision to address stem-cell tourism in Stem cell scientists face down stem cell tourism


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