Understanding hope - the rise of stem cell tourism

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Those on a disability support pension, previously counted as outside the labour force, will have to become active jobseekers under the review. Photo: Dreamstime

There is a significant gap between what is promised by the clinics driving stem cell tourism and what is supported by scientific evidence. So why are increasing numbers of Australians travelling overseas to undergo expensive and potentially harmful treatments? 

That is what Professor Alan Petersen of Monash University's School of Political and Social Inquiry, is aiming to find out. In collaboration with Dr Megan Munsie of Stem Cells Australia and Professor Steven Wainwright of Brunei University, he will undertake the first sociological study of what shapes peoples' understandings and expectations of stem cell therapy (SCT) options abroad.

"Stem cell tourism is a phenomenon where people travel to other, often developing, countries to undergo radical, experimental treatments that aren't offered in Australia. People with a range of illnesses and injuries, including cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis and spinal cord injury are heading overseas for treatment in increasing numbers," Professor Petersen said. 

"These procedures aren't proven and could actually be harmful to the patients. The health risks of SCTs include infection, immune system rejection, and potentially, cancer in later life. It's vital that we understand patients' decision-making processes so we can help protect them from harm and financial exploitation."

Professor Petersen believes that the regulatory and educational strategies employed to date may fail to stem the flow of SCT tourists because they underestimate the power of hope. 

"These patients obviously want an improvement in their quality of life or respite from suffering and are frustrated by the lack of progress in stem cell therapies in Australia.

"Hope is very powerful and tends to be nurtured by communities and support networks. It helps people form their own conceptions of risk, despite the recommendations of medical professionals," Professor Petersen said. 

"Patient's high expectations of SCTs are understandable considering the enthusiasm around the potential of stem cells from various levels of the scientific community here and abroad. This enthusiasm is reinforced by the persuasive online advertising from the overseas SCT clinics."

The researchers will canvass the views of people who have undergone STCs overseas, as well as the views of medical professionals, policy-makers and regulators. In addition, the advertising and practices of clinics driving stem cell tourism will be analysed. 

Due to commence in 2012, the project is supported by the Australian Research Council and has been praised by Joanna Knott, Chair of Spinal Cure Australia.