Experts have renewed calls for changes in legislation that would open the way for Australia to become a world leader in stem cell research while reigning in “rogue” operators.
Professor Richard Harvey, deputy director and head of the Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute’s Developmental and Stem Cell Biology Division said as many as 60 Australian providers were offering unproven stem cell therapies to treat everything from osteoarthritis to cancer, autism and Alzheimer’s disease.
A regulatory loophole currently allowed “virtually anything” to be done with stem cells provided they are from the patient. He said it was even permissible to genetically manipulate the cells.
“There is nothing to distinguish high risk and low risk activities,” he said. “It’s an open slather, it’s an invitation to rogue operators.”
While some stem cell treatments are proven for uses such as coronary and skin grafts, there were many so-called treatments that had no scientific backing, including stem cell treatments for osteoarthritis.
“The risks are low for some applications, but they are not insignificant,” Professor Harvey told the limbic. “The whole landscape will change when someone comes forward with a growth or dies from an embolism.”
Professor Harvey is one of Australia’s strongest proponents of stem cell science, and he wants the industry’s bright future to be unsullied by such ‘rogue operators’.
He recently co-chaired an Australian Academy of Science steering committee charged with developing a roadmap to guide the future of Australian stem cell science.
The Stem Cell Revolution: Lessons and Imperatives for Australia has been developed by some of the country’s brightest young scientists.
It recaps recent advancements in the field and presents a strategy for “safely and effectively taking stem cell research from the lab bench to the hospital bed”, and to “better regulate rogue stem cell therapists offering unproven and possibly risky therapies for commercial gain.”
They advocate clinical trials as the main route to prove the effectiveness of possible new treatments; a national centre to help accelerate the translation of clinical discoveries; and stem cell banks with relevant clinical and genomics data to help facilitate research.
Professor Harvey said Australia had the ability to become a world leader in stem cell research, but it would require a national strategic effort to remain globally competitive.
“We can make organs in a dish and correct disease-causing genetic defects in a patient’s own cells: it’s an exciting time for stem cell researchers and new breakthroughs are making headlines almost daily,” he said.
“We must continue to strategically support this vital area, and see it as priority area of research for Australia if we are to reap the benefits for humanity, save on our healthcare bill, and continue to be a world leader.”