The domestication of stem cell tourism

Authored by: Douglas Sipp

Routledge Handbook of Medical Law and Ethics

Print publication date:  August  2014
Online publication date:  September  2014

Print ISBN: 9780415628181
eBook ISBN: 9780203796184
Adobe ISBN: 9781134448654


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The rise of international marketing for putative stem cell products and procedures, commonly referred to as ‘stem cell tourism,’ is a well-documented phenomenon that dates back to the early 2000s (Lau et al. 2008; Kiatpongsan and Sipp 2009; Regenberg 2009; Ryan 2009; Sipp 2011a).The modern commercialization of unregulated cell or tissue biologics traces its origins to transplants of fetal brain or adrenal tissue for neurological diseases in the 1980s and 1990s (LeVay 2008). Further, commercialization practices gained widespread popularity in Europe and in the United States where xenogeneic transplants of lyophilized cells, tissues, or extracts harvested from sheep, rabbits, goats, and monkeys, and described variously as Frischzelllen (fresh cell), live cell, or Sicca cell therapy, began in the 1920s and continues today (Last 1990; Van Dyke et al. 1990). These nascent examples demonstrating the unregulated sale of cell- or tissue-based products displayed many of the hallmark features of present-day stem cell marketing: extraordinary claims of medical efficacy or rejuvenating power of living cells or cell extracts, widespread use of media innovations, and mention of required overseas travel for patients. In one well-known example, John Brinkley, known as ‘the goat gland doctor,’ pioneered the use of commercial radio in the 1920s, and later established the first ‘border blaster’ station in northern Mexico to reach American listeners while evading federal laws (Brock 2008). Despite the popularity of Paul Niehans’ ‘fresh cell’ approach across German-speaking Europe, and a brief public fascination with fetal tissue transplants in Asia and Latin America in the 1980s, the demand for cell and tissue medicinal products has historically been a niche market.

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