Although we hear a lot about the rising costs and stagnant quality of health care, the health care policy literature is nearly silent about the role of quackery in increasing costs and causing bad outcomes for patients. The Los Angeles Times has a poignant report about one particular health care fraud, and its effects on the desparate patients who turned to it.
This fraud capitalized (literally) on the rising interest in stem cells. A company called BioMark Inernational, originally located in Florida, and prominently located on the web, touted stem cell infusions for a variety of illnesses, including amyotropic lateral sclerosis (ALS). The LA Times story focusses on one ALS sufferer who got two stem cell treatments, convinced that it was his only hope. After spending a lot of money, and after his preoccupation with finding a miraculous cure drove a wedge between him and his family, he died less than a year after his first treatment.
The article documented how BioMark was founded by Laura Brown, a former fashion model, and Steve van Rooyen. Neither had any biomedically related training. BioMark's advisory board included reputable physicians and scientists who never agreed to serve on it. BioMark started its operations in the US, but after the Food and Drug Administation (FDA) raided its offices, it transferred its site for stem cell injections to Canada, then to Mexico, and set up offices in London. Patients from the US, and probably other countries, are still journeying to Mexico and paying $10,000 for stem-cell injections. The elaborate BioMark web-site is still operational here. It still claims: "They [stem cells] have been documented as effective treatment for most all degenerative conditions as well as injuries. This is due to their capacity to regenerate the blood system, as well as every single organ, tissue and cell system in the human body. " And it still claims that stem-cells can treat a broad variety of illnesses, including ALS.
A stronger and more international effort to shut down quackery like this would more than repay the initial investment, not only by saving money spent on such worthless treatments, but also, and more importantly, by preventing the the shattered hopes that are the human costs of quackery.
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