Medics Warn Against Embryonic 'Anti-Aging' Treatments

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:16 PM EDT

( - Medical authorities in Australia are advising against patients visiting China for untested treatments derived from human embryos, amid reports that wealthy Westerners are paying large amounts of money in a bid to counter the effects of aging.

In recent years, concerns have been expressed about Chinese physicians injecting cells from aborted babies into the spines and brains of patients with spinal injuries or diseases.

The controversial treatments have now taken a different direction, however, with clinics offering anti-aging treatments.

An Australian naturopath, Michael Wilson, has accompanied patients to a clinic in Kunming for the cosmetic therapy.

Wilson said Thursday they included one of Australia's wealthiest men, a construction tycoon in his 60s who had undergone the treatment with his wife.

Patients go through a 10-day program, receiving injections morning and night, and pay about $30,000. He said they reported improvements in skin condition, better sleep and clearer vision.

Wilson said the treatment involved being injected with material that activates "adult" stem cells already present in the patient's body, enabling them to "repair and regenerate the tissues and organs."

It's where the injected material comes from that is controversial.

Wilson said the details of the process were confidential -- "they're not giving their technology to the rest of the world yet" -- but he confirmed that the material was derived from blastocysts.

A blastocyst is an early-stage human embryo created in a lab from an egg and a sperm. It has the potential, if implanted in a woman's womb, to grow into a fully-formed baby.

The Chinese donors were screened for genetic suitability, Wilson said.

"Generally, what they do is check to make sure they do not have any DNA damage. They might go back five generations just to check and see how accurate the blastocyst line is."

Asked whether he acknowledged that the work was highly controversial, Wilson argued that in-vitro fertilization treatment was also controversial some years ago.

"In the next five, ten years, this will be mainstream," he predicted.

Research involving human embryos is a divisive issue in many countries around the world.

Many scientists and campaigners for people with degenerative diseases or spinal injuries argue that because of the potential of stem cells harvested from embryos, the research should be encouraged and generously funded.

Pro-life groups say the resulting destruction of the embryo puts the work beyond the pale. They want more funding for and emphasis on research using "adult" stem cells, which are already being used for successful therapies.

Dr. Mukesh Haikerwal, president of the Australian Medical Association, said in an interview Friday that a lot of hope was pinned on the possibility of future stem cell treatments for diseases.

He was concerned, however, about people visiting China for treatments that were both "experimental" in nature and had less to do with illness than "lifestyle issues."

"We're not sure of the mechanics, where the stuff is produced, how it's produced, how much is being put into the human and what the results are going to be."

Haikerwal said history contained examples of the dangers of experimental treatments of this kind.

In one case, people with growth deficiency had growth hormone from cadavers' brains injected into them, he recalled.

"They grew, but then they got Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, the human form of mad-cow disease. You have to have great caution when doing new treatments that are going to have an impact down the line."

From the ethical point of view, Haikerwal said most people would be comfortable with the idea of using "adult" stem cells from non-controversial sources like bone marrow or cord blood.

Difficulties arose when embryonic stem cells were used.

Aborted babies

Meanwhile, hundreds of sick people from around the world have been visiting China for treatment that involves being injected with cells taken from the nasal passages of aborted babies.

The work is being done at a Beijing clinic by Dr. Huang Hongyun, a neurosurgeon and former post-doctoral research fellow at Rutgers University.

One patient to undergo the treatment this year was a New Zealand woman diagnosed with motor neurone disease (also known as ALS or Lou Gehrig's disease), a degenerative condition with no known cure.

Willie Terpstra said she had a hole drilled in her skull and was injected with millions of the cells.

She returned from Beijing last April reporting noticeable improvements, including hand strength and clearer speech.

But she told New Zealand television on Wednesday -- speaking through a voice machine -- that her condition has since deteriorated. It was now the same, if not worse, than before the treatment.

Earlier, the Motor Neurone Disease Association of New Zealand said it was unable to recommend that people pursue the treatment.

"The treatment is not legal in most countries, partly due to ethical issues around using fetal stem cells and partly because at present, there's no evidence that it works," said the association's Louise Rees.

"The Chinese doctor carrying out the treatments is not publishing any results or following patients up after treatment so that other people in the scientific and motor neurone disease communities can evaluate the effectiveness of the treatment," she said.

"He is also asking people for large sums of money upfront."

Clinics in Russia are also offering health and cosmetic treatments involving stem cells, the Associated Press reported earlier this year.

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow