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EmCell: Faith Healers for a Modern World

John on December 17, 2006 at 9:22 pm

Update 2: The best reporting on this comes from Matthew Hill of BBC 4 radio. Go here to listen to the entire 40 minute show called The Stem Cell Swindle. He travels from Kiev to Barbados looking for answers. He interviews two women whose babies disappeared. He interviews the director of EmCell and many more.

Bottom line: There is photographic evidence of viable babies with organs removed for stem cell harvesting. There is no evidence that any of the treatments work. Investigators from the EU are scheduled to return to Ukraine in February. It is likely that the corruption here goes all the way to the top. Doctors and politicians would have to be involved for this trade to take place. Answers are unlikely to be forthcoming.

Finally, I’ve sent NPR a recommendation that they cover the story using BBC 4 as a guideline. We’ll see if they respond.

Update: This doesn’t look promising:

A Ukrainian investigator looking into claims that new-born babies were killed to harvest their stem cells and internal organs says she was removed from the case after demanding that the inquiry be extended to all Ukraine’s maternity hospitals.

Irina Bogomolova, who works in the chief prosecutor’s office in the capital, Kiev, claims she was taken off the case because she came too close to the truth while investigating allegations made by women who claim their babies were taken away from them immediately after birth.

She said: “I was sacked for political reasons. I demanded an investigation into all maternity wings in hospitals across Ukraine and I was relieved of duty after making that demand.

“A trade in stem cells exists here… I suspect there is a lot of bribery going on, right up to highest levels.

[HT: Scott at Magic Statistics, who is also covering the story]

[End Update]

Since writing about EmCell and the accusations of infanticide against them, I’ve done a bit more investigation. The more I look, the more this looks like the modern day equivalent of snake oil salesman. A story from the Daily Mail titled A Barbaric Kind of Beauty notes that EmCell is a leader in foetal stem cell treatments for the aging rich:

Ukraine is home to Emcell, the world’s largest clinic that has openly experimented in stem-cell therapy for the past 15 years and administers hundreds of anti-ageing therapies a year.

The promise: Treatments range from the injection of stem cells from animals such as cows and pigs to injecting cells taken from the umbilical cords or livers of aborted human foetuses. ‘Foetal tissue has been shown to be highly rich in regenerative stem cells which, when injected into adults, helps the body fight the ageing process,’ says Dr Elena Bochkaryova.

‘I have had patients who leave my clinic after a course of injections looking and feeling ten years younger than when they came in.’ The reality: RUSSIA and the Ukraine currently top the world abortion league, with more of the operations carried out here than anywhere else on earth. Evidence gathered by the Moscow police department has shown a growing black market in aborted foetuses, which are smuggled into Russia from the Ukraine and Georgia.

Here, poverty-stricken young women are paid 200 U.S. dollars to carry babies up to the optimum eight to 12-week period – thought to be best for harvesting stem cells. They are then sold on to cosmetic clinics.

‘The cavalier attitude of Russian cosmetic surgeons is grotesque,’ says Dr Minger. ‘The origin of the cells is ethically immoral. Furthermore, they don’t bother to test for compatibility between the cells injected and the patient who receives them. Medical risks from complications can include infection, tumors and rejection of foreign tissue.’

More significant is this investigation done by the ALS Treatment Development Foundation, a group which acts as a kind of watchdog in the realm of treatments for ALS:

ALSTDF talked with the doctor performing the transplants at EmCell and then followed up with a detailed questionnaire to allow them an opportunity to shed some light on their treatment rationale and their success with ALS patients. EmCell did not answer many of the questions, and in some areas refused to elaborate on important details such as their method for screening against the AIDS or hepatitis viruses in the cells or their method of cell extraction. We also asked a number of questions that focused on how they were able to report on patients who have benefited from the treatment. They were not willing to explain their conclusions or how they reached them. In addition, ALSTDF talked with a number of patients who had been to the clinic, including a review of the information about the Casper Wyoming man. In summary, we have not found any data that suggests that the methodology used by EmCell is scientifically reasonable, or that it is helping ALS patients. Although the Foundation has not received any reports of ALS patients being harmed by EmCell, the Foundation has not received any verifiable reports of improvement following EmCell treatment either.

In 2004, Boston Globe reporter Gareth Cook won a pulitzer prize for this article on EmCell. He notes:

There is no detailed description of what cells are used in the treatment. There is no discussion of how these cells are purified or tested. There is no discussion of how, precisely, the cells function in the body, or whether any experiments have been done to analyze this. There is no discussion of what the cells do, biologically, to help with any of the many diseases EmCell treats. The data the clinic provides on its experience with humans are so vague that the doctors who reviewed the material for the Globe said they couldn’t draw any conclusions about its work.

I think it’s pretty clear at this point that EmCell isn’t selling cures, they’re selling hope. The price is about $15 to $20K per treatment. If Dr. Smikodub, founder of EmCell, is responsible for killing healthy infants he needs to either go to jail for life or be executed. If he is merely stealing money from desperate people, giving them cures that don’t work, he needs to lose his license and be sent to prison for a few decades. Unfortunately, I doubt either will take place in the Ukraine, where justice and everything else seems to be for sale.

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