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Stem cell treatment warnings

31st August 2006

14032006_SyringePink1.jpgThe stem cell debate continues, with warning on stem cell treatment revealed in a Newsnight programme, and concern expressed by experts in a letter to the Times;

Stem cell treatment warning 

A BBC Newsnight programme reported that a company operating out of South Africa is charging tens of thousands of pounds for stem cell treatments, using cells that should not be injected into people, putting the lives of their vulnerable and chronically ill patients at risk.

The programme said the company, called Advanced Cell Therapeutics (ACT), has been buying cord blood stem cells from California.  It then stores them in the UK before shipping them to clinics in Europe and Africa, where they are injected by doctors into patients. ACT claims a beneficial effect on a number of diseases but the majority of their patients come from the UK, seeking help for multiple sclerosis.

The individuals behind the company, Stephen Van Rooyen and Laura Brown, are being pursued by the FBI for an alleged fraudulent stem cell business in the United States. They are living in South Africa and face an extradition hearing by US authorities on 5 September, 2006.

Newsnight filmed a vial of cord blood stem cells, produced by a company called AllCells, about to be injected into a two-year old boy. The general manager of AllCells was shocked that his cells were being injected into people as they were intended only for research purposes. A former medical director of ACT also became suspicious of the source and was devastated to discover that the cells should be used for research purposes only. The cells contain animal protein which puts patients at risk of an allergic reaction, including anaphylactic shock, which can be fatal.

The UK company that had been used for storage said it was advised by ACT that the material was for research purposes, it has since severed links with ACT. The cells are now stored by another company which is taking advice from the Human Tissue Authority (HTA) who say it's done everything it can within the limits of current legislation to advise them about the wisdom of storing cells if they know they are intended for use in people when they are not fit for that purpose.

Stephen Van Rooyen, who declined the BBC offer of an interview on camera, says patients sign a consent form in which they are told about the risk of an allergic reaction, but that form does not mention animal protein.

The mother of the child to be injected with the stem cells says that the financial aspect does not concern her - she paid £13,000 for the injection - but she was concerned from a health point of view for her son.

 Patients warned over dangers of untested stem-cell wonder cures

Leading medical research groups warn that patients with crippling diseases such as multiple sclerosis should beware of expensive stem-cell “wonder cures? that have never been properly tested. In a letter to The Times, 14 research funders and medical charities warn patients that there is no evidence to support the benefits attributed to unorthodox stem-cell treatments, which could carry a risk of infection, immune system rejection and possibly cancer. 
 
They also say that premature use of stem cells to treat disease, prior to evaluation in clinical trials, also threatens to set back mainstream research that promises genuinely better therapies. The signatories include Professor Colin Blakemore, chief executive of the Medical Research Council, Lord Patel, of the UK Stem Cell Bank, and the heads of the MS Society, the Parkinson’s Disease Society, the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation and the Alzheimer’s Society.

A small number of treatments based on adult and cord blood stem cells have been licensed in the UK, mainly for treating leukaemia and eye and skin disorders. However some foreign clinics offer stem-cell injections for other conditions, chiefly MS, and for cosmetic surgery.
Scientists are concerned that vulnerable patients are being exploited. Professor Blakemore said that the potential of stem cells would best served by cautious progress and rigorous clinical trials.

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