Are stem cell tourists being swindled?

Maybe, maybe not. According to the July edition of the publication Popular Science and its online companion site, desperate US patients are headed offshore for experimental stem cell therapies, referred to as stem cell tourism.

Although there are numerous warnings, many patients are left with few options and turn to companies that supply adult stem cells that are harvested from their bone marrow and blood, including Regenocyte Therapeutic, XCell-Center (Germany), TheraVitae (Canada) and Beike Biotechnology (China).

The US-based cardiologist Zannos Grekos, MD, FAAC, the founder of the adult stem-cell company Regenocyte Therapeutic, offers a unique process touted as "safe, highly effective, and present[ing] minimal risk."

The process involves an evaluation and drawing of blood in Florida, then the blood is flown to Israel "so that the stem cells can be ‘activated' and multiplied to a therapeutic strength" in a lab; once ready they're sent to the Dominican Republic where the patient is greeted and begins the therapy.

The cost is about $64,000 (€52,733) and Regenocyte's site states that this therapy is used to treat a range of health challenges affecting cardiac and vascular patients as well as ongoing research and development to help those suffering from ALS, Parkinson's, Alzheimer's and multiple sclerosis.

On June 7, Costa Rica announced that it has "discontinued stem cell procedures at its biggest clinic, the Institute of Cellular Medicine (ICM) in San Jose, which has treated about 400 people since it opened in 2006" because the Ministry of Health in Costa Rica found "there is no hard scientific evidence indicating that the treatments work."

ICM had promoted stem-cell treatments that have yet to be proven efficacious or safe for "multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy, and spinal cord injury."

The International Society for Stem Cell Research (ISSCR) continually urges patients not to seek therapy overseas because these practices have not been proven sound by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

In 2009, Jeanne Loring, PhD, director for the Center for Regenerative Medicine at The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI) in California, echoed ISSCR's concern in a video clip, explaining stem cell tourism as the "exploitation of the promise of cures using stem-cells."

Loring then asked those who have made the decision to seek stem cell therapies overseas against all the warnings "to ask the clinic to collect a sample of the stem cells they intend to use you can freeze and send it to me and I will analyze it for free and I will tell you what the stem cells are and ... [whether it] will be dangerous or helpful to you."

Grekos contends that the practice is safe and that adult stem cells should not be in the domain of the FDA, "There's no genetic manipulation or splicing - you're not altering the cells at all. All you're doing is maturing them. The growth factors we use are naturally occurring in the body."

Whereas cardiologist Deepak Srivastava, the director of Gladstone Institute of Cardiovascular Disease in San Francisco and member of ISSCR, said "an unbiased body approving these treatments is important so the public has some sort of stamp. I get e-mails frequently from patients around the world saying, ‘I got stem-cell injections, and initially it seemed like it might have helped, but now I'm back in the same boat.' "

It is unclear if patients are being swindled, but if you find yourself reaching for your passport to get some stem cells why not take Loring up on her offer - it's free and a clinic confident in their research and therapies should be willing to undergo a second (verifying) opinion.

Watch stem cell tourist testimonials: and