Another Korean Stem Cell Scandal?

Posted by Marcy Darnovsky November 17, 2010
Biopolitical Times
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RNL Bio - the Korean biotech company known to Biopolitical Times readers for its dog cloning and stem cell cosmetics - is now facing allegations of other seriously dubious efforts.

The Korea Times reports that the company is suspected of arranging for thousands of patients to get stem cell treatments that are illegal in Korea in affiliated clinics in China and Japan. In effect, RNL Bio is promoting "stem cell tourism" as an end run around the fact that its product has not been approved by regulators in its home country.

It gets worse. RNL Bio is also accused of having provided discounted stem cell treatments for "scores" of lawmakers and high-ranking officials who agreed to push "for the deregulation of clinical tests." According to a November 15 Korea Times update,
There is a possibility that the murky allegations surrounding RNL could explode into a national scandal, as the company is suspected of providing free stem cell treatments to politicians, bureaucrats and celebrities in return for lobbying for eased regulations on stem cell trials.
Further, The Korea Times reports, RNL Bio has made alarmingly hyperbolic claims about its stem cell treatments without providing evidence. The company has asserted that "a person who could not wake up can walk after the injection." And it has "lured patients by saying that the shots could rejuvenate their skin and body functions to that of their 20s and 30s."

The deaths of two patients sent by RNL Bio to facilities in China and Japan is fueling concerns about stem cell tourism. The company maintains that the fatalities were unrelated to the stem cell injections they received. The Korea Food and Drug Administration and the Ministry of Health and Welfare are investigating.

Stem cell tourism is also taking off here in the U.S., which like Korea has not approved many of the techniques being promoted. A number of companies are offering treatments with adult stem cells for conditions including arthritis, Parkinson's, and Alzheimer's.

RNL Bio is a major player in this sector, having opened a clinic in Los Angeles' Koreatown in March and another in San Diego in September. According to the Los Angeles Business Journal, its LA facility is in "a small corner storefront in the Koreatown Galleria… upstairs from a grocery and alongside stores selling handbags and Hello Kitty dolls."

Patients are sent to local doctors who extract fat tissue that contains stem cells. After isolation and processing in RNL Bio laboratories in Maryland and Korea, the stem cells are injected back into the patients in RNL Bio's partner facilities in China, Japan, or Tijuana.

The president of the RNL Bio's U.S. subsidiary, Jin Han Hong, argues that stem cell tourism is justified:
"FDA approval will take years, and so many people who are suffering from degenerative diseases or the aging process cannot wait….I'm not trying to take advantage of desperate patients, but if the patient wants to go to another country to receive stem cells, which is not available in the United States, then that is just one option."

Am I imagining it, or does he sound just a bit defensive about encouraging people who are very sick - or just don't like getting old - to spend large amounts of money on unapproved, unproven, and possibly risky treatments?

Previously on Biopolitical Times: