Monday, June 19, 2006

Beware of Stem Cell Quackery

Another mass fraud in the making in biotechnology--this time out of China. It appears that Dr. Hongyun Huang has been claiming that his aborted fetal stem cell treatments have had amazing restorative powers. But now, a study soon to be published reveals it may all be a fraud--worse than a fraud, dangerous quackery--with many patients seriously harmed.

If true, we can draw at least two conclusions. The first is the crucial importance of proper medical research ethics. Stem cell treatments of all type need to be tested carefully, first on animals, and then in properly regimented human trials. This is frustrating because the process can be agonizingly slow. But the alternative is a laissez-faire approach, in which patients pay tens of thousands of dollars for treatments that are still highly experimental, such as seems to be happening in parts of Asia. Rushing off to China or Thailand for an unproven cure could well leave you worse off--or dead.

Second, the irresponsible hype spread by biotech boosters about the potential for ESCR, has created such a super-heated atmosphere that desperate people are driven into doing irresponsible things. Many scientists are properly cautious in their journal writing and when communications with other scientists, but some have not shown the same reticence when testifying in front of politicians or speaking to the press. The increasingly tabloid media then further downplays the caveats in trumpeting their CURES! CURES! CURES! story line (often to try and make Bush look bad) to the point that some folk apparently think the treatments have been already proven. Finally, some truly irresponsible politicians--such as Senator John Edwards who infamously said that a vote for Kerry would mean that people would be able to get out of their wheelchairs and walk--have raised the hopes of some people to a level of near hysteria.

All of us who communicate in these areas have to be careful. We can and should communicate the "state of play" but we should always remind people that many of these treatments remain highly experimental and that it takes time to verify their efficacy and safety.

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