Plunge Pontificates

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Sunday, March 05, 2006

Korea: Stem Cell Miracle or Snake Oil Salesmen?

We all remember the stem cell patient that after receiving treatment walked for the first time in years. The triumph was heralded around the world, her recovery a miracle, all because of a stem cell injection. Since then the publicity faded just as fast as the miracle. She is now back in a wheelchair, the treatment only lasting a couple of weeks; further treatments only making the situation worse.

Today there are only the tears.

Hwang is back in the wheelchair, where she has largely been since falling off a bridge as a teenager. She said the purported miracle treatment — which entailed injecting umbilical stem cells into her damaged spine — had only fleeting benefits that wore off after a few weeks. A second procedure in March 2005 caused an infection and left her in constant pain.

"I was like an animal they used for testing," a bitter Hwang said.
All that is left now is lawsuits and lies. The bubble has burst along with the hopes and dreams of many terminally ill and permanently injured patients. The following is just one example.

"They were telling us about one patient who was in a coma and then after the procedure she was climbing Mt. Halla," said Choi Mi Ae, a 54-year-old liver patient, referring to the most famous peak on Cheju, an island off the southern coast. Choi said she was so convinced by claims of a cure that she almost removed her name from a waiting list for a liver transplant.

"If I had done that, I wouldn't be alive today," she said. "There was no effect from the procedure, nothing at all. I was lucky that six months later I was able to get a new liver."

The court awarded Choi a refund of half the $40,000 she spent on the treatment.
This is truly pathetic and is sounding more and more like the so-called 'cancer centers' and 'miracle cure' clinics based in Mexico and other South American countries where they inject people with extract from peach pits and other snake oil proceedures all the while charging them outrageous fees.

Jim Pitts, a 52-year-old Colorado resident with a congenital form of cirrhosis, had been told by leading experts that previous attempts to treat cirrhosis with stem cells had failed. But, stuck on a long waiting list for a liver transplant, he too went to South Korea late last year for one of Histostem's treatments.

He says he has seen some improvement but is not sure yet whether the stem cell procedure helped him.

Pitts, who financed the procedure by working as an editor and translator for Histostem for three months, said his only complaint was that the firm was asking patients to spend large sums of money for, in essence, participating in experiments.

"The bottom line is making money," Pitts said. "I think it is too much to ask anybody to spend $100,000 or more for stem cell therapy that is still really a clinical trial."

Others are more critical.

"They are selling desperate people a story that just one injection of stem cells will be like a magic pill to cure them," said Lee Sang Ho, a biotechnology expert at Korea University in Seoul.
This truly sickens me and Korea's response to it is just as bad. They are preying on the desperate and taking their last dollar. With these results they might as well be injecting them with saline.

The South Korean Food and Drug Administration said it was conducting a review of the estimated 150 stem cell procedures that have been conducted since mid-2004, when the rules concerning "emergency treatment" were relaxed.

Jang Yong Uk, an official at the agency, says there are no plans to change the law because patients are still clamoring to try even the most experimental of treatments.

"These are people who are fighting for their lives and don't have much other hope," Jang said. "We are motivated out of humanitarian concern for them."

Susan Howley, director of research for the Christopher Reeve Foundation, the late actor's fund to support research into paralysis, says there is a need for clearer guidelines and standards internationally so that patients can make educated decisions before embarking on risky treatments.

"Everything about these treatments is anecdotal. You hear that so-and-so went somewhere and got this treatment and got better. Or that nothing happened or that there were complications and it got worse," Howley said. "That's why there is such a crying need for guidelines."
Shame on them.