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The Savvy Online Consumer

Weekly Scam Alert: Stem Cell Treatment Scams

By Tran Nguyen Templeton on September 2nd, 2010 • 11 comments

It’s impossible to pick up a paper and not read about the latest news and controversies around stem cells. This is in no small part due to the increasing demand for novel therapies. As an example, more and more children every year are diagnosed with neurobehavioral disabilities like ADD and autism, which has driven desperate parents in need of effective treatments to look to stem cell therapies for hope.

Unfortunately, the misinformation surrounding stem cell treatments has opened the door for scammers. These fraudsters have seized on another trend, medical tourism, which for years has been the choice of many who look to pursue overseas plastic surgery or other medical procedures at lower costs than in the U.S. The result: a new scam known as “stem cell tourism” is quickly becoming its own brand of exploitative business. As compared to legitimate subtypes of medical tourism, however, stem cell tourism comes at a big pricetag, both financially and emotionally.

Before you, a family member, or a friend dips into that savings account to invest in stem cell treatment, here are some things to keep in mind when investigating the claims of stem cell center websites:

Your health shouldn’t be in the hands of a salesman

High pressure sales tactics should be used by street hustlers, not by real medical experts. Recently a representative of the American Stem Cell and Anti-Aging Center (ASCAAC), a clinic located in Ecuador, visited a special education school in Latin America and urged the director to gather the mothers of the school to hear a talk from a Dr. Albert Mitrani, one of their doctors. After sharing miracle stories of children with low-functioning autism talking within hours of stem cell treatment, the ASCAAC representative shared that she was also planning to bring a friend with lupus to the center in Ecuador. This kind of personalized admission from a young woman who seems trustworthy can sometimes seal the deal.

Representatives of these organizations will also often say things like, “Just give us a little bit of your time, it wouldn’t hurt.” But what’s more harmful than false or, at the very least, premature hope, sold with a $25,000 price tag?

Exorbitant price tags and hidden costs for experimental treatments

Speaking of $25,000 pricetags, it’s not unheard of for unauthorized stem cell treatments in foreign countries to cost upwards of hundreds of thousands of dollars. Add to that the cost of managing potential complications from the treatment as well as extra supplements the clinic will likely ask you to take, and you’ve gotten yourself in a serious financial predicament.

Stem cell treatments are still in the clinical and experimental stages, meaning scientists have not conducted enough research to conclusively know what works, doesn’t work and what the side effects are. Generally universities that conduct these types of treatments are the ones to provide the payment, rather than the other way around, in order to recruit patients for their studies.

Don’t let fancy facades fool you

ASCAAC gives itself loose credibility by including “American” in its name and by associating itself with Envita Medical Center in Scottsdale, Arizona. If you do your research by googling “Envita scam”, you would find that the Citizens for Responsible Care and Research has already posted a letter (one of many, for other institutions as well) from the Department of Health and Human Services which at one point found the center in violation of codes of public health.

ASCAAC’s website, on its front page and on other pages, boasts of offering to their patients spas and an “executive luxury package” at an associated 5-star hotel. You would think you were taking a luxury vacation rather than undergoing an important medical procedure. As well, one section of the website is dedicated solely to the rejuvenation of skin and aging. All of this against a serene blue backdrop, surrounded by photos of perfect-looking doctors in white lab coats and happy patients. Chances are the photos are stock photos, taken from the Internet or purchased from professional photographers. Keep in mind that the websites of these kinds of places will most likely look professional. After all, with the millions they make a year, surely they invest some of it in a handsome website.

Testimonials and anecdotes can’t trump science

Rather than links or referrals to clinical trials and evidence-based medicine, stem cell centers rely heavily on patient testimonials and anecdotes. And while these patients may have experienced improvements in their conditions, there’s no discounting what years and years of research have said about the “placebo effect”. While it is not our intention to make assumptions about the perceptions of others, it’s difficult to disentangle any other treatments the person may have received or simply the power of hope.

Even smart folks can fall into traps by overly trusting forums, which may have testimonials from people paid to travel forum to forum, spreading the word of the spammers. As well, don’t let a domain that ends in .org be a sign of veracity. These days anyone can buy a .org domain name. When doing your research, check the sources or other articles on the website. Does the entire website devote itself to the benefits of stem cell treatments, yet mentioning very little about the fact that scientists are currently in the experimental stages? If so, you’re better off looking elsewhere, such as governmental (.gov) or educational sites (.edu). Your best personal option is to consult with a specializing and reputable doctor in the field of the illness you’re investigating.

One treatment can’t be a cure-all

According to Dr. George Daley in an interview on NPR, at this time, legitimate stem cell treatments have only been effective for a very small number of diseases, mainly blood-based illnesses such as leukemia and thalassemia. Others are in the research process.

Conditions like Parkinson’s, hearing loss, autism, lupus, etc. stem from different dysfunctions in the body, so what makes us assume that a one-size-fits-all approach to medical treatment is the way to go? Really, let’s think about it – for conditions such as autism, in which we do not know yet where the various deficits lie and for what exactly we are treating, having stem cell treatment would merely be an expensive shot in the dark.

Using your own stem cells doesn’t necessarily mean its safe

Unauthorized stem cell centers might try to comfort you by saying that, with the use of your own stem cells, there are no ethical issues. Tell that to the woman who traveled to Bangkok to receive treatment for her lupus nephritis. The doctors there extracted stem cells from her bone marrow and injected them into her kidneys, resulting in lesions and masses which doctors claimed were never-before-seen. Her body began to fail her, her kidney needed to be removed, and she died within 2 years.

Carefully chosen words

As an example of the language that these institutions use, the XCell-Center in Germany states on their homepage (which has typos, by the way – another red flag), “Since the start in January 2007, more than 3000 patients have safely undergone our various stem cell treatments.” Safely undergoing treatment does not equate to success, improvements or cures in conditions. These unscrupulous institutions want to find a way to take your money, and they don’t want for their words to come back and bite them.

Consult reputable experts

The fact of the matter is – desperate patients shouldn’t have to wade through websites and determine, with little to no criteria, whom to trust. Other than what we have offered as tips, to protect consumers and the integrity of the scientific community, the International Society for Stem Cell Research (ISSCR) offers an important and helpful service of vetting so-called stem cell treatment centers for consumers by examining the legitimacy and scientific validity of such places. To find out more information about places which might be selling themselves to you, check out ISSCR’s Closer Look at Stem Cells website. An additional resource for patients is the website of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute.

About the author: Tran Nguyen Templeton is the program advisor of Colegio Monarch Guatemala, a therapeutic school for children with neurobehavioral disabilities. Tran holds a Masters Degree from the Harvard Graduate School of Education.


Comments

11 Responses to “Weekly Scam Alert: Stem Cell Treatment Scams”
  1. rafael says:

    I think that this article is a pure scam. This article is not base on any proof what so ever. Many people have gone stem cell treatment and gotten better. It is true that up to this date, there is no data that statistically can prove stem cell treatment benefits. Why? this is because many of this data has to be done on based on a multicenter alleatry evidence based medicine. Stem cell treatment is still on a fase 2 trial, i dont think the author knows what that means. Another thing, is that the pictures in the website are not download or photoshoped. They are real pictures, i have seen them. The luxury package is not a medical treatment, it is a antiaging treatment. Go to hollywood and see for your self the cost of these many treatments, they can go beyond that price. So in conclusion, I think the author should do more research, and since she is not a professional on the field, that is a medical doctor, she sis not qualified and should not be publishing antiscam articles about medical treatments.

  2. Tran says:

    Rafael,

    Thanks for your comments and thoughts on this! I see that you’ve found me on Facebook as well – did you want to further discuss this? If so, I’d be happy to do that via this medium rather than through a private/personal medium. You’re right, I’m not a medical doctor, but the purpose of this article was to provide the other side of an issue that is costing a lot of people money they don’t have and what little hope they have left. I’m aware that some people feel they’ve made a lot of progress after stem cell treatment. Do you know someone personally who did? How did you become involved in this issue? It seems that you’ve taken this article very personally, but I hope that you would understand the need for people to educate themselves, which is why there are links provided for further self-investigation. And certainly your comments will help anyone who reads this from now on to consider another angle.

    Best,
    Tran

  3. Dr. Albert Mitrani says:

    Hi Tran, Dr. Al Mitrani from American Stem Cell & Anti Aging Center. You failed to mention to your readers that you are friend to a former employees uncle whom you are at “odds with” and is the reason for your libelous article.

    We have treated over 8000 patients since 1991 and yet the only “complaint” any one has ever posted on the Internet is from you. Someone who has never been a patient and only wrote this article to “get back at” someone. We have had great results treating people with stem cell therapy and I welcome anyone to call me any time at the phone numbers posted on our website if they have any questions related to stem cell treatments.

    I don’t hide behind a website or gate keepers. You also failed to mention our charity foundation where we do hundreds of pro bono stem cell treatments on the poor and needy in third world countries who could never afford stem cell therapy…

  4. TODD says:

    DR. Al. Find someone that does not have ethical conflicts to make your arguments. Charity does not offset your ethical obligations to the patient. “Dr. Mitrani is a member of the Sovereign Medical Order of the Knights Hospitaller, knighted by Pope Benedict XVI in the Order of St. Sylvester, and is a member of the Royal College of Papal Knights of the Americas. Dr. Mitrani is also a member of the Royal House of Savoy.” Does this not cause its own medical ethics issues? Your testimonial section is a bigger joke than this site. “Envita’s Approval for Phase I Cancer Study: Some Perspective::Last year, we reported on how Envita had submitted an application to conduct research on natural killer cell therapy after we received a warning letter from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Although we regarded our treatment as the practice of medicine and not within FDA’s jurisdiction, we felt that the possibilities presented by the natural killer cell therapy were promising. We complied with the FDA, submitted our request, and awaited approval to begin our study.” Why did they wait? What do you have to hide? All of your information purposfully vaque.

  5. Carlos Palomino says:

    I am a person who just will like to folllow up on these comentsa someone who is strongly thinking on getting stem cell treatment.
    Thanks.

  6. rachet says:

    mitrani is NOT a doctor of anything except how to schyster money out of people
    an expert con man hiding under color of law
    married to an ecuador “plastic surgeon” of dubious nature
    he’ll do ANYTHING for money

  7. shequela says:

    “dr. mitrani” ripped me off for over $15,000 US
    first he sells cosmetic machines in trade shows where he rippped me off
    and now becomes an overnite doctor of genetic science ?
    don’t allow this man to inject anything into you, especially thru a syringe
    he’s evil

  8. meticuulous says:

    THIS IS AN ABSOLUTE LIE AND FRAUD

    Dr. Al Mitrani from American Stem Cell & Anti Aging Center:

    “We have treated over 8000 patients since 1991 and yet the only “complaint” any one has ever posted on the Internet is from you.”

    AL MITRANI HAS NOT EVEN TREATED 80 PATIENTS, LET ALONE 8,000
    FRAUD, CON MAN AND FELON

  9. Dennis H Bennett says:

    From the misuse of the name “American” Stem Cell…., to the illegitimate use of a professional title and website links, from the lack of peer-reviewed articles, research, follow-up assessments to phone pressure sales of too-good-to-be-true results, from its 4 offshore SOUTH AMERICAN locations to its being chased through Envita, to its utter regard for ethics and scientific method, this is the worst of the worst of humanity-selling emptiness to those who are hopeing to find a magical, once-in-a-lifetime cure for their disease. Unable to respond to legitimate, sophisticated, research questions, they, especially Mitrani, argue from a bottle-washer viewpoint, “Well, how do you know? Have you ever tried it?” They prey on the desperate and the vulnerable,like a Black Mamba hanging from an orange tree unbeknownst to the picker.
    For some reason or other the state of Arizona is a favorite place for the these parasites. Next door to the Phoenix, Envita “Medical Center” is the Scottsdale, “Stem Cell Rejuvenation Center” where a “Dr. Peace” exists
    in a business that has been doing this for “ten years”. That claim alone verifies its shaky, spurious and embellished claims.

  10. jorge says:

    “doctor” mitrani is a salesman, silver tongue and shizter
    he left his wife and family for an ecuadorian whore named marinas pinto
    he left a trail of lawsuits if not criminal charges
    the law will some day catch up with him

  11. Carlos P says:

    Somehow I agree with Rachet and Sequela,cause took the treatment with this Dr.. I suffer of congenital Scoliosis because of this on previous surgery loss the nerve sense of the sphinters and was promised that and orthopedic same as a Neurologist surgeons will be at the site of the so called “stem-cell treatment”,but to my avail none of them were present. Now feel sorry I wasted my money.

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