Six Japanese arrested over medical treatments using blood taken from umbilical cords, which are popular with Chinese visitors
Blood taken from umbilical cords and placenta is high in blood-forming stem cells, which are used in treatments for leukaemia and other critical diseases
Six people have been arrested in Japan over the illegal sale and use of blood from umbilical cords and placenta in regenerative medical treatments, with Chinese nationals reportedly the biggest foreign clients of clinics carrying out the procedures.
Police have referred Tsuneo Shinozaki, the head of a company that brokered the illegal sale of cord blood, to prosecutors, along with the head of a Tokyo regenerative medicine clinic and four others. The doctor has also been charged with breaking the law on regenerative medicine.
Blood taken from umbilical cords and placenta is high in blood-forming stem cells, which are used in treatments for leukaemia and other critical diseases. There are also hopes that research into regenerative medicine will find cures to cardiac and other complaints, and may even mitigate the effects of Parkinson’s disease by implanting nerve cells into the brain.
There are, however, elevated risks of infection and graft rejection, meaning any procedures using cord blood require extensive testing to ensure compatibility and explicit authorisation from Japan’s health ministry.
Claims the blood is also an effective beauty treatment have not been proven but that has not put off more than 1,000 patients undergoing such procedures at facilities across Japan in recent years. It has also been claimed it is effective in treating cancer, although that suggestion also remains unproven to date.
The manager of a clinic in Kyoto told local media Chinese people who had learnt of regenerative therapies had travelled to Japan on organised medical tourism trips.
“Chinese people misunderstand stem cell treatments and they just see it as some sort of magic solution to any health problems that they have,” the manager of a Tokyo-based clinic told the South China Morning Post.
“They come to Japan because this sort of treatment is not available in China and because Japan is seen as being advanced in this area and having good medical facilities,” said the official, who declined to be named and insisted his facility did not conduct procedures using umbilical cord blood.
He added that, under Japanese law, clinics are limited in the services they are able to advertise on their websites, but some clinics take out advertisements in China through other companies, enabling them to evade scrutiny.
It is not illegal for Chinese people to travel abroad for medical procedures, including regenerative therapies.
According to investigators, illegal injections of umbilical cord blood were conducted at clinics and private hospitals in at least 20 prefectures across Japan, with about 30 per cent of the clients from overseas.
Facilities charged between 3 million yen (HK$212,500) and 4 million yen for each injection.
By law, umbilical cord blood is donated free of charge to publicly operated blood banks by women after they have given birth. The blood is kept in storage. Such banks have to be licensed and are closely regulated to ensure safety.
The blood used in the recent unmonitored treatments was obtained from a blood bank that went bankrupt. Brokers paid to obtain the blood and sold it on to clinics.