Stem Cell Treatments Make Bad Travel Souvenirs

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In the Scientist, Zubin Master and David B. Resnik propose to  curb stem-cell tourism, in which the medically desperate travel abroad to pay for usually useless, sometimes dangerous treatments, by restricting access to research materials. Specifically, they hope to develop a sort of application process, by which scientists applying for reagents—“stem cell lines, nucleic acid sequences, growth factor enriched cocktails, or purified proteins” that can be used in questionable treatment—have to demonstrate their credentials and their purposes. They write:

Although our proposal places limits on scientific openness and sharing, we believe it is necessary to have such restrictions in this situation in order to prevent greater harms—potentially worsening the condition of patients who receive fake treatments and the possibility of reducing public trust and undermining legitimate stem cell research.

The international science community has struggled for years with stem cell tourism, and the focus on educating consumers seems not to be adequate. Part of the problem, as Master and Resnik say, is that consumers have been hearing about the promise of stem cells for years, but have seen little progress. It’s easy to see why some might think that stem cells are just caught up in bureaucracy, and that a cure is merely an international flight away. This highlights the danger of technological hype: Some people may give up on the frontier entirely, while others may try to take matters into their own hands. Both outcomes could have troubling consequences for the future.

Read more on the Scientist.