Conference Coverage

Neurologists grappling with patients who embrace ‘stem cell tourism’



– Stem cell tourism – the unethical practice of offering unproven cellular preparations to patients for a variety of conditions – is increasingly sought by patients with incurable conditions such as multiple sclerosis and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, results from a novel survey suggest.

Dr. Wijdan Rai, Ohio State University, Columbus Doug Brunk/MDedge News

Dr. Wijdan Rai

In fact, most academic neurologists have been approached by patients with incurable conditions who ask them about stem cell therapy, while about two-thirds have had at least one patient who has undergone stem cell therapy.

“It’s really scary,” Wijdan Rai, MBBS, the study’s first author, said in an interview at the meeting held by the Americas Committee for Treatment and Research in Multiple Sclerosis. “This is a more prevalent issue than we think, and the complication rates are higher than we think.”

According to the study’s senior author, Jaime Imitola, MD, who directs the Progressive Multiple Sclerosis Multidisciplinary Clinic and Translational Research Program at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, Columbus, the results “call for the creation of a nationwide registry where neurologists can document adverse reactions to stem cell procedures and further support dedicated patient and neurologist education as we have proposed before” (See Semin Neurol. 2018; 38[2]:176-81 and JAMA Neurol. 2015;72[11]:1342-5).

In an effort to understand the experiences and attitudes of academic neurologists regarding stem cell tourism and patient-reported complications, the researchers developed a 25-question survey disseminated via Synapse, a web tool from the American Academy of Neurology. Respondents were asked about demographic information, frequency of patient questioning, perception of physician competence, patient complications and experiences, and attitudes toward increased physician education.

Dr. Rai, who is a senior neurology resident at the medical center, presented findings from 204 neurologist respondents, of whom 31% identified themselves as MS specialists. Nearly all respondents (91%) said they have been approached by patients with incurable conditions seeking information about stem cells (37% of whom had diagnosis of MS). In addition, 65% have had at least one patient that has undergone “stem cell therapy,” and 73% said it would be “helpful” or “very helpful” to have an evidence-based patient education tool on the topic. “Patients most often wanted general information,” Dr. Rai said. “However, 50% requested permission to undergo a stem cell procedure, and 31% approached their neurologist after the procedure.”

Survey respondents reported that 33% of the stem cell interventions were performed in the United States and 22% abroad, while 37% reported both in the U.S. and abroad. Patients underwent the procedures in China, Germany, the Bahamas, Mexico, Russia, and Costa Rica. Three-quarters of respondents (75%) indicated no patient experiencing complications from the stem cell interventions. However, 25% reported patients experiencing a variety of complications from the procedures, including strokes, meningoencephalitis, quadriparesis, MS deterioration, sepsis, hepatitis C, seizures, meningitis from intrathecal cell injections, infections, and spinal cord tumors. “At least three respondents had a patient who died as a direct complication from stem cell therapy,” Dr. Rai said.

In their poster, the researchers recommended a “multipronged approach to improve education of MS patients from exploitation and engaging multiple stakeholders in the field, including MS academic societies, licensing boards, and legislative bodies. Specifically, we call for creation of evidence-based education for both neurologists and patients, including physical resources that neurologists can use when discussing stem cell interventions with patients and videos on proper counseling during these visits.”

Colleagues from OSU’s Laboratory for Neural Stem Cells and Functional Neurogenetics contributed to this work. The researchers reported having no financial disclosures.

SOURCE: Rai W et al. ACTRIMS Forum 2019, Poster 237.

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