Stem cell firms defend record after criticism

LONDON (Reuters) - Cell therapy companies in China and Germany who were criticized by British experts warning of the dangers of “stem cell tourism” defended themselves on Wednesday, saying their safety records were good.

Beike Biotech, which operates in China, said in a statement that all its stem cells are administered by experienced physicians who work in and for leading hospitals in China.

“Beike boasts an impeccable safety record, and it enjoys the support of various branches of the Chinese government and of leading Chinese universities and hospitals,” the company said in a statement emailed to Reuters in London.

A panel of British health experts said on Tuesday they were concerned about a growing level of international “stem cell tourism” where patients travel abroad to private clinics to have treatments that are not licensed by drugs regulators in Europe or the United States.

The experts said they were particularly concerned about a firm in Germany called XCell-Center and about Beike, which offers stem cell treatments for a range of conditions including brain injury, cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, spinal cord injury and optic nerve damage.

A spokesman for XCell said in a statement that its stem cell preparations are made from bone marrow and intended for “autologous” use, or use by patients from whom they came.

“These preparations are medicinal products for innovative new therapies,” the statement said, adding that they were covered by European regulations on advanced therapy medicinal products and “do not require a permit issued by the European Commission to be marketed.”

Stem cells are the body’s master cells that give rise to many different tissues and blood cells. They are standard treatments for leukemias and a few other genetic diseases, but their use in treating other conditions such as Parkinson’s, spinal injury or optic nerve damage is as yet unproven.

The British experts said they had been prompted to speak out about the risks of traveling abroad for stem cell treatment because of a flood of requests they get from patients who read about apparently dramatic cures on websites and in the media.

The International Society for Stem Cell Research has previously warned of private stem cell clinics around the world seeking to exploit desperate patients oblivious to the risks.

Beike Biotech said in its statement said there was a cultural difference between the attitudes of scientists in China and those in the West with regard to stem cell treatments.

“In the West, stem cell treatment is treated like a drug, not a therapy. It requires phase I, II and III trials before Western doctors and scientists will accept its effectiveness,” it said.

“This has limited the availability and increased the cost of stem cell therapy in the West, causing considerable frustration for many patients who cannot afford to -- or do not want to -- wait until the treatments are proven by Western standards.”

Reporting by Kate Kelland; Editing by Charles Dick