Russian officials are baffled by the discovery earlier this week of 248 dead fetuses found stuffed into industrial barrels in a the destitute village of Lyovikha in Siberia.
According to the New York Times, a fisherman stumbled across the gruesome scene — tiny, mummified bodies, some as old as 22 to 26 weeks gestation. In 2007, Lyovikha was the site of another horrific discovery: the bodies of 15 women and girls as young as 13, who had been abducted by a prostitution ring.
Some have speculated that the bodies of these aborted or premature infants had been part of a human trafficking ring to sell for bogus cosmetic or medical procedures.
Stories like these do damage to legitimate medicine, including stem cell research, according to experts, who worry about people buying into false cures. Those hopes only fuel the trade in illegal and unethical practices.
“It’s a terrible story … people in distant lands killing embryos,” said Dr. Darwin Prockop, director of the Institute for Degenerative Medicine at Texas A&M Health Science Center College of Medicine. ”This has always been true in medicine. Medicine has always had a quack fringe around it.”
Health Day has reported that different clinics in China and in Ukraine have claimed to treat thousands of patients with adult stem cells for neurological disorders such as multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, spinal cord injury and Alzheimer’s disease. They claim to have cured everything from autism to cerebral palsy and allergies.
Web sites associated with these clinics emphasize benefits and not the risks and the average cost for such procedures, not including airfare and hotel — averaged about $21,500, according to Health Day.
There is no science to support the injection of fetal stem cells for cosmetic purposes, and stem cell research is a long and arduous process.
“I’m afraid it’s only the beginning of things,” said Prockop. “People are so over-excited about stem cells and believe that they will cure anything. And people are desperate.”
Bogus research has cropped up even the United States, he said. A “60 Minutes” episode exposed a “snake oil salesman” in Florida who claimed to be curing those with Parkinson’s disease.
Research in the field is promising, but the science is not there yet, according to Prockop.
“Stem cells are kind of magical and can potentially grow body parts, but we are trying to do hard work that is safe and effective,” he said. “The only thing we can do is insist that everything goes through the FDA and systemized studies.”
Crazy cures are dangerous, said Prockop. “People will get killed with the wrong injections for the wrong things.”
But Dr. Insoo Hyun, associate professor of bioethics and philosophy at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine in Cleveland, said the arguments between opponents and proponents of stem cell research have given them the “magical” properties that the public has embraced.
“Unfortunately, people exploit the mystique and make money,” said Hyun.
He said the Russian fetuses were not likely destined for any legitimate stem cell research. In the United States, the aborted fetuses used for adult research are not identified. “All the names were attached and they were discarded into woods,” he said.
Still, many illegitimate operations mistakenly believe fetal cells have “rejuvenation” properties for wrinkles or disease, he said. Medical tourism thrives in these false claims.
“What the heck were they doing where they were discarded and where did they come from?” said Hyun. “It’s very bizarre and … people fill in the gaps with their wildest fears.”