A recent article details unregulated Russian stem cell frauds and pseudoclinics - not exactly a shining example of what can be achieved. Russians seem to have the worst of all worlds; enormous levels of fraud, a population that doesn't yet seem to have learned the merits of caveat emptor, poor educational infrastructure, an ineffective and overbearing state, and the inability to develop effective private review, rating and monitoring organizations.
Vladimir Bryntsalov, a Moscow pharmaceutical tycoon, decided last year on the advice of a friend to seek a treatment for the gray hair and wrinkles that come with being 58 years old. He had a potent mixture of human embryonic stem cells injected under his skin. It is a radical procedure with unpredictable results under any circumstances, let alone in a Moscow beauty salon. A few weeks later, Bryntsalov was as gray, wrinkled and tired as ever - and sported several pea-size tumors on his face. He began to doubt that the salon was legitimate. "They didn't have a laboratory, nothing," he says. "Who knows where [the stem cells] came from?"
It's not clear what's being injected beneath patients' skin. Are they embryonic stem cells harvested from days-old embryos? Such "undifferentiated" cells would be the most promising candidates for repairing organs, from alcohol-addled livers to wrinkled skin, but they are also the least predictable and potentially most dangerous. "If we introduce undifferentiated cells into the body of a person with low immunity, then there's a high risk of cancer," says Gennady Sukhikh, a stem-cell scientist from the Russian Academy of Sciences.
Some clinics advertise human-embryonic stem cells, but in fact take them from pig embryos. The Kosmeton clinic, which rents space in a tony Moscow neighborhood from a medical facility with ties to the Kremlin, openly admits to luring patients with empty promises. "In our advertisements, we say that we have stem cells," says Yelena Chelishcheva, who works at the clinic. Clients actually get an injection of skin cells.
The bright side of this situation is that the same limited, situational freedom that allows the frauds to operate also allows serious research to proceed:
Ironically, serious science may yet benefit from the Russian free-for-all. Dr. Andrei Bryukhovetsky, a scientist at Moscow's Cancer Institute, is using the adult stem cells of spinal-injury victims to repair vertebrae. "This is the one area where we are ahead of the Americans," says Bryukhovetsky, "and it's only because our laws allow us to use stem cells, both embryonic and adult." Bryukhovetsky also has a front-row seat when stem-cell treatments go wrong. A 23-year-old woman, who had paid $10,000 for a series of stem-cell injections for a concussion, went to Bryukhovetsky complaining of severe headaches and a breakdown in her immune system. The risks are obvious to him, if not to all.
If you are familiar with the funding situation for medical research in Russia - a country where academics have been known to moonlight as taxi drivers to make ends meet - then you'll see just how much damage has been done to medical research in Europe and America. We could be so much further ahead on the path to developing regenerative cures for age-related conditions.