The past few years have seen a sharp rise in the propagation of unproven stem cell ‘treatments’, also known as ‘stem cell tourism’. Patients suffering from a variety of diseases unresponsive to conventional medical therapy often travel to certain destinations to receive these therapies, mostly from bogus operators advertising various ‘stem cell treatment cures’ for a wide range of conditions, and in the process mislead vulnerable patients with unfounded promises of recovery. Stem cell tourism, made possible by legal lacunae or weak national regulatory frameworks, raises grave legal and ethical concerns, as patients not only receive treatments which are unproven, but often also unregulated, potentially dangerous and fraudulent. Existing proven therapeutic applications using stem cells are limited to those for blood and immunological disorders and are based on clinical trials that have demonstrated the efficacy and safety of these applications. As a result of weak legislative enforcement in this area, South Africa has unfortunately become an attractive destination for fraudulent stem cell operators.
The purpose of this article is provide an update on the South African legal position relating to stem cell therapy by evaluating the effectiveness of the Medicines and Related Substances Act and other relevant legislative provisions in regulating cell-based therapies, drawing strongly on recent international developments and case law in this field. The article will make specific recommendations aimed at improving the existing position.