A fascinating documentary that is making the rounds at film festivals like Tribeca and Cannes gives a rare view of a controversial treatment that more and more Americans are paying up to $50,000 to receive.
Stem cell therapy is widely considered to be the next big hope in medicine, with researchers everywhere from Stanford to Johns Hopkins investigating the technology’s potential to treat seemingly every ailment known to mankind—Alzheimer’s, cancer, joint injuries, even basic signs of aging.
The only hitch: With one tiny exception, it isn’t legal in the United States.
“We all know the stem cell revolution is occurring outside the U.S.,” says Brian Mehling, M.D., a Manhattan-based orthopedic surgeon who is certainly doing his part to foment the insurgency. A coproducer of the film, as well as its charismatic recurring subject, Mehling is bringing stem cell tourism into the spotlight and determined to lift the curtain on a medical field that remains mysterious to most.
His Blue Horizon medical clinics, with locations in China and Slovakia—and three more set to open in Mexico, Israel, and Jamaica—cater to American tourists looking to cutting-edge therapy for help when traditional medicine fails.
Stem cells are the undifferentiated cells that abound in newborns and have the ability to transform into blood, nerve, or muscle cells and aid the body in self-repair.
Proselytizers like Mehling say they constitute the latest in holistic medicine, allowing the body to heal—without drugs, surgery, or side effects.
At clinics such as Mehling’s, doctors either inject the cells, which are generally obtained from umbilical cords during C-sections, into a patient’s spinal cord (much like an epidural), or administer them via IV drip. The process is alarmingly quick, and patients can typically check out of the facility by the end of the day.
One of the few stem-cell therapies approved for use in the United States is one used to treat the blood disease known as beta thalassemia; in that instance, the treatment replaces damaged blood in the immune system and saves tens of thousands of lives each year.
Few other stem cell applications, however, have been proven effective in the rigorous clinical trials the Food and Drug Administration requires before signing off on any treatment.
In fact, stem cell clinics remain completely unregulated, and there have been incidents of related troubles. In one recent report, Jim Gass, a resident of San Diego who traveled to stem cell clinics in Mexico, China, and Argentina to help recover from a stroke, later discovered a sizable tumor on his spinal column—and the cancerous cells belonged to somebody else.
Troubling cases also emerged at a loosely regulated clinic in Sunrise, Florida where, earlier this spring, three women suffering macular degeneration reported further loss of vision after having stem cells, extracted from their belly fat via liposuction, injected into their eyes. Though, on the whole, reports of treatments at clinics gone awry remain relatively few.
In his film, “Stem Cells: The Next Frontier,” which is set to appear at Cannes Film Festival this month, Mehling offers a persuasive side of the story, with rapturous testimonials from patients, some of whom who have regained the ability to walk after their stem cell vacations. Added bonus: They come home with better skin, bigger sex drive, and (in the case of at least one balding patient) more hair.
However compelling, there is scant evidence that the injections actually make a difference, and most American doctors caution against buying into the hype.
Stem cell researcher Jaime Imitola, M.D. and Ph.D, director of the progressive multiple sclerosis clinic research program at Ohio State University, says he is impressed by the evidence that stem cells can help with neurological disorders in animals. “But the question is how can you translate it into clinical trials? We still don’t know what we’re doing when we put stem cells in people.”
David Scadden, a professor of medicine and stem cell and regenerative biology at Harvard, and the director of Harvard’s Stem Cell Institute, says that stem cell tourism is “a waste of money” for the time being. A world-renowned expert in stem cell science, he remains optimistic about its future applications.
Researchers are currently looking into reprogramming, for instance, which effectively converts a mature cell into a stem cell. “You rewind its history so it forgets it’s a blood cell or a skin cell and it rewinds back in time and it can become any cell type,” he says. “You’d be able to test drugs on these cells, and it could be used to reverse Type 1 diabetes.”
For now, though, he does not recommend experimenting with stem cells before we understand them well enough to properly—and safely—harness their benefits. “People call me about it all the time—they say, ‘I have this knee that’s bugging me, I’m going to one of these clinics,’ ” he says. His response? “For the most part they don’t do harm. But nobody I’ve spoken with has come back to me and said, ‘You Harvard docs have to get on this . . . .’ Not yet.”