The largest stem cell treatment center in Costa Rica closed last week due to ambiguities in the country’s 1973 General Health Law and its interpretation by the Health Ministry. A stem cell is a master cell which has the ability to grow into any one of the body’s more than 200 cell types.
According to Neil Riordan, founder of The Stem Cell Institute, operations will be moved to Panama where he says the laws governing stem cell treatment are more defined.
While the Costa Rican government granted the The Stem Cell Institute the proper permits for them to collect and store umbilical stem cell samples in 2006, the organization was denounced before the Ministry of Health in 2007 by the National Academy of Medicine after they began practicing treatments with stem cells, according to the daily La Nación.
Health Minister María Luisa Avila recently told local doctors that the use of stem cells in treatment is prohibited.
“The ambiguity of the system is the primary reason for us choosing to consolidate into Panama where there are clear laws and a black and white situation,” Riordan told The Tico Times. “In Costa Rica, the situation is too muddy.”
Since the Institute opened, it’s seen 500 patients – mainly foreigners – who spend an average of $12,000 on treatments for health conditions ranging from autism to cerebral palsy. Though many patients seek out stem cell treatment as a last resort, a good percentage of these have experienced success as a result of stem cell infusion, according to Samuel Flickier, former member of the institute’s advisory board.
“The people who normally receive (stem cell) treatment are people who don’t have any other alternative,” said Flickier. “They are looking for other options.”
He said the ministry’s stance on stem cell treatment threatens Costa Rica’s growing reputation as a destination for foreigners seeking medical treatment.
“This is very damaging to the future of medicine in Costa Rica,” he said. “The future of medicine is in adult stem cells and nanotechnology … which Costa Rica will be closed off from.”
Health Minister Avila said she didn’t order the clinic closed, but simply enforced Costa Rican regulations, which prohibit the use of adult stem cells in treatment.
“We did not close the institute. They made that decision themselves,” she said. “But what we are prohibiting is the use of adult stem cells because no place in the world recognizes (the use of) stem cells as a form of treatment.”
In a press statement issued four days after the closure, the Institute wrote, “This decision … was reached in response to Costa Rica’s unpredictable and arbitrary regulatory landscape. During its time in Costa Rica the company operated in full compliance with all existing laws and regulations.
“Unfortunately, however, the recent lack of clarity regarding adult stem cell treatment regulation in Costa Rica proved to be too great a risk for The Stem Cell Institute to continue its work in that country.”
Riordan said he would consider returning if the Costa Rican government could clarify existing ambiguities.
“We had a very good team in Costa Rica,” he said. “There is some excellent talent that is being wasted with the closure of the institute.”
He emphasized that the institute’s patients can continue receiving treatment in Panama.