There has been a flurry of media activity around last week’s announcement by the Chinese Ministry of Health and SFDA that they were calling for a six-month halt to new applications for stem cell clinical trials, as part of a one-year campaign against the rampant marketing of baseless stem cell treatments. This is extremely positive news, in that it signals a renewed effort by the central government to rein in abuse of patients, both Chinese and foreign, by profiteering physicians in a system that has rightly been called Medicine’s Wild East (wild in the sense of harvesting tissue from induced abortions for use in for-profit clinics).  

This was not the first such move, however, and it is too soon to tell whether it will have an impact on a lucrative industry in that country. When the MOH published new guidelines on advanced medical technologies (including novel uses of stem cells) in 2009, there was a noticeable, but transient, pullback from the egregious claims of the preceding years by internationally-focused peddlers of stem cell pseudomedicine, such as Hongyun Huang, Like Wu, and biggest and baddest of them all, Beike Biotechnology. A look at Beike’s website over the years (thanks Wayback Machine!) tells the story…
In 2006, the first time the Beike site was archived, the company boasted of 26 treatable conditions, including Parkinson’s, juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, chronic kidney disease, and high blood pressure. By 2009, the list had narrowed to only 6 treatable conditions (how’s that for progress!) – but to be fair, these included some real doozies, like Alzheimer’s, autism, muscular dystrophy, and MS. These remain on the site today, although the list is no longer linked to from the top page of the English-language Beike site. One recent weakly-reasoned study of the business model notwithstanding, the company appears now to be only a shadow of its former self (to the extent that I previously suspected it was going out of business), following several high-level defections and a change in leadership.

Whether this reduction in the number (but not the speciousness) of its claims was in response to the 2009 MOH guidelines, I cannot say, but I have written favorably in the past (as well as in an overview of stem cell research in China published in Cell Stem Cell this month) on the effect that the increased oversight appears to be having. 

But now, thanks to another free internet service – Google Translate – I may have to take at least some of that back. I discovered recently that searching for the Chinese equivalents of search terms like “stem cell treatment” or “stem cell therapy” reveals an enormous and apparently unregulated market in China for such services, with many of the offending hospitals under the management of the People’s Liberation Army, the Chinese Navy, and even the domestic Armed Police Forces. Make no mistake – these are not just hematology units using hematopoietic stem cells to treat blood and immune system diseases, or even innovative clinicians trying out a few novel techniques on small numbers of patients in a controlled, rigorous, and circumspect fashion. These are large-scale, state-sponsored forays into stem cell pseudomedicine, with Chinese patients as the ultimate victims. Diabetes, spinal cord injury, facelifts, heart failure, stroke, “anti-aging,” arterial disease – you name it, you can find it treated with stem cells at a Chinese military hospital.

Military-grade stem cells
Of course, under capitalism with Chinese characteristics, the public-private sector can’t be cut out entirely, as we see here, here, and here. Note how many of the sites immediately present visitors with a chat window, prompting them to communicate in real-time with a live customer rep. ICMS – you still have a few things to learn! 

Oh, wait – the ICMS is already there, lending its get out of jail free card to a private orthopedic stem cell hospital in the rural city of Wendeng. And, hey, I recognize that grin – that’s Colorado-based sports medicine and rehab doc Christopher J Centeno, founder of the ICMS and Regenerative Sciences, who licensed his unproven stem cell product Regenexx in China through the good offices of fellow stem cell entrepreneur-at-all-lengths, NeoStem. There is literally no place on earth this tireless medico won’t go to turn a quick buck  deliver the goods to those desperate for stem cells at any cost!
Machine translation is also an inexact science…
I need to be very clear here that I do not think these dubious hospitals are representative of the state of stem cell research in China, which has made remarkable strides in recent years, as is clear from this review in this month’s CSC. But by allowing such a broad range of clinics, many of which are operated by military or quasi-military organizations, to continue to peddle unproven stem cell treatments directly to patients, the government of that country is at risk of squandering its investments and the hard efforts of the many real researchers and scientifically-minded physicians who work there, putting patients at risk of injury and/or penury, and diluting the impact of its own Ministry of Health’s judicious attempt to introduce a basis in evidence to the field there.

Lastly, for anyone who wants to see some untranslated examples for themselves, click away below: