"Stem Cell Tourists" Go Abroad for Unproven Treatments

Eliza Barclay
for National Geographic News
December 3, 2008

When Robert Ramirez was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease in 2006, his doctor gave him medication, but little hope: "He told me there wasn't much I could do except wait to 'pass to the other side.'"

Ramirez, a Peruvian-American mechanic in northern New Jersey, watched helplessly as his symptoms worsened. His left arm grew weak. His leg muscles went rigid. His trembling intensified.

Then his wife, Elvira, saw Jorge Tuma on a Peruvian news show. The Peruvian doctor, based in Lima, claimed to be treating Parkinson's and other diseases with injections of stem cells. They checked out his Web site: For $6,000, relief could be theirs. They booked a flight to Lima.

Ramirez is one of an increasing number of patients seeking stem cell therapies overseas—experts put the number in the thousands. And Tuma is one of dozens of non-U.S. doctors offering such treatments.

The trend is significant enough that the International Society for Stem Cell Research (ISSCR) released guidelines today for doctors using stem cells and would-be "stem cell tourists."

U.S. experts fear that some foreign doctors are rashly treating patients without waiting for clinical trials to validate the safety of their procedures.

"There are many doctors tapping into the public's sense of stem cells' potential to cure in countries with looser medical regulations," said Sean Morrison, director of the University of Michigan Center for Stem Cell Biology, and treasurer of ISSCR. "But the details of stem cell treatment are much more complicated."

Yet stem cell therapies are becoming a lucrative area of medical tourism, even though science has yet to divine their potential and controversy plagues the field.

The cells, found in embryos and certain adult body tissues, have the potential to grow into many different types of cells. But ethical issues surrounding the use of embryos as stem cell sources has slowed research in countries such as the U.S. and U.K.

Researchers in the U.S. are conducting clinical trials using both adult and embryonic stem cells to treat diseases, but the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has yet to license any such treatment.

(Read about stem cells in National Geographic magazine.)

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