by Hilary White

LONDON, August 31, 2006 ( – A statement from a group of medical charities and foundations has warned British consumers against being taken in by the stem cell snake oil business growing in posh private clinics in Europe and abroad.

In a letter to The Times, the 14 signatories say that extravagant claims made by some European clinics for the stem cell cures and treatments, particularly for multiple sclerosis and for cosmetic treatments, pose a threat to patients and to the integrity of the field of stem cell research.

The letter says, “We advise those who are desperate for cures or attracted to cosmetic surgery to be wary of claims being made by clinics offering these treatments.”

The scientists warn that an accidental death from such unregulated treatments could undermine the funding for research by turning public opinion against the field. “We worry that those cutting corners risk discrediting the field as well as betraying patients,” the letter says.

Reports have emerged recently in the British press of some patients travelling to the Netherlands and other countries and paying enormous sums for unregulated and unproven treatments.

The letter’s signatories include Professor Colin Blakemore, chief executive of the Medical Research Council, Lord Patel, of the UK Stem Cell Bank, and the heads of the MS Society, the Parkinson’s Disease Society, the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation and the Alzheimer’s Society.

Neither the letter, nor the media coverage of it, however, distinguishes between stem cell obtained from embryos or aborted children, or mentions the many clinically responsible trials and treatments commonly used around the world with cells taken from the patient’s own bodies.

Many stem cell researchers who work with “adult” or somatic cells taken from the patient, decry the confusion that has been maintained in the media that conflates ethical and often highly successful adult or umbilical cord stem cell treatments with those that depend upon killing of living embryos or abortion to obtain the cells.

The letter goes on to warn more specifically against unscrupulous clinics offering cosmetic treatments to women hoping to maintain a youthful appearance. But the Times coverage perpetuates the very media myths the letter decries, saying that the “most powerful” stem cells are from embryos and that adult cells are “less malleable”.

Several, well-publicized cases under strict clinical conditions have shown that various types of adult stem cells have equal ability to adapt to different kinds of tissue as embryonic cells.

In an article in the Daily Mail earlier this month, Andrea Thompson wrote of the growing practice of some European beauty clinics offering to inject stem cells obtained from umbilical cord into the skin. Under the headline, “A Barbaric Beauty,” Thompson also failed to distinguish between stem cells obtained from ethical sources such as umbilical cords and those taken from embryos or aborted children.

Thompson reported that women from developing countries are being paid to carry a child to a certain level of development. The child is then “harvested” to obtain tissue for use in the various treatments meant to produce smoother skin and increased sex drive and energy.

Around the world, in Barbados, Moscow, Rotterdam and New York, women can pay up to £15,000 for treatments that doctors say is based mostly on “no convincing evidence”.

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