Recommended reading re: stem cell tourism
Blinded by Science -- Modern-day Hucksters are Cashing in on Vulnerable Patients
The article appears in the September 2011 issue of the Canadian magazine The Walrus. It was written by Timothy Caulfield, a health law and policy researcher at the University of Alberta.
Despite all the red-flags being waved by reputable scientists, public agencies and even governments, stem cell tourism is flourishing; the people seeking of cures and treatments overseas have fueled a multimillion dollar enterprise. The topic has attracted the attention of public health scholars, like Caulfield. Desperate patient + tangible stem cell mythology = what he calls “Scienceploitation” -- the marketing of good (and bad) science. It’s the perfect confluence of greed and hype.
Says Caulfield: “Just as science fiction bends and stretches the truth in the service of entertainment, science marketing does so with the goal of profit. This has been going on for centuries. Scientific breakthroughs stir the public imagination, become part of popular culture, and then get packaged and sold by opportunists.”
Caulfield also lays blame on the mass media, often uncritical in its reporting of medical “breakthroughs:”
Last year, I co-authored a study, published in the journal Nature Biotechnology, that examined 445 newspaper articles on the stem cell tourism industry. Most were optimistic in tone and portrayed the treatments as effective; they were framed as human interest stories and driven by patient testimonials. Risk and scientific fact recieved little space. Sample headlines included: “Young Holly’s Brave Stem-Cell Quest”; “Hope for Harvey in Fight Against Palsy”; “El Paso Teen Gets Stem Cell Treatment in China in Hopes of Seeing”; and “Trip to Mexico a Last Resort.” If you are a desperate patient looking for hope, these kinds of stories tell you where it may be found.
Caulfield urges patience with the scientific process. Fast cures don’t happen. And because it worked on a rat doesn’t mean much:
The public hears this message: if it works in animals, it will work in humans, although this is often — usually — untrue. Successful animal studies translate to successful human clinical trials only about 10 percent of the time.
Be skeptical, Caulfield says. But also keep the faith in progress.
History tells us that the likelihood of a new, effective, and widely applicable treatment appearing during the early days of a new sphere of research is minuscule, hovering around zero. So healthy skepticism must remain the default. We should not, however, allow this disposition to slide into cynicism about the value of research. History also promises that genuine benefits will emerge, even if they are more modest than first envisioned.