National / Crime & Legal

Medical tours linked to cord blood arrests

Non-Japanese believed clients in 30% of cases involving unauthorized stem cell treatments

Kyodo

Foreign nationals accounted for about 30 percent of patients who received unauthorized therapies based on blood from umbilical cords and placenta sold by a dealer charged with illegal handling of the blood, investigative sources said Monday.

The dealer, who heads a cord blood sales firm in Tsukuba, Ibaraki Prefecture, was among six people arrested Sunday for suspected involvement in cord blood treatments conducted without advance notice to authorities. The effectiveness and safety of the therapies has not been proven.

Among the foreign clients were many Chinese. Cord blood transplants have become popular for medical and beauty reasons, despite being expensive and running the risk of graft rejections and infection, the sources said.

Investigative authorities believe the suspects may have conducted lucrative cord blood therapies despite knowing that carrying out this kind of treatment had not been authorized by the health ministry. Each treatment is said to cost ¥3 million to ¥4 million.

On Monday, police handed Tsuneo Shinozaki, the 52-year-old Tsukuba company president, Shinsuke Shuto, a 40-year-old doctor, and the chief of a clinic in Tokyo, and four other suspects to prosecutors.

According to the police, in April 2010 the Tsukuba company began selling cord blood that could be used to treat more than 300 people to a clinic in Kyoto and a now-defunct cord blood wholesaler in Fukuoka, from which it was resold to other medical institutions across the country.

Cord blood found in umbilical cords and placenta following childbirth contains blood-forming stem cells that are used to treat leukemia and a number of other diseases.

Under a law on the safety of regenerative medicine, medical institutions using stem cells are required to submit treatment plans beforehand for review by the health ministry, except when treating designated diseases such as leukemia.

Shusuke Tsubo, who manages the Kyoto clinic, said before his arrest that Chinese people who learned of cord blood therapy on the internet started coming to his clinic frequently from around 2015.

“I sold cord blood for some 70 people” at the request of the Fukuoka wholesale firm,” he said.

“The demand (from foreigner clients) is very high as they see Japan as the most advanced nation in terms of regenerative medicine,” a medical consultancy employee who planned medical tourism packages and introduced the Kyoto clinic to clients said.

The worker acknowledged he introduced them to the clinic without studying the law.

Shinozaki’s company sold umbilical cord blood stored at a private cord blood bank in Tsukuba that went bankrupt in 2009. It had enough cord blood to treat more than 1,000 patients.

Shuto allegedly administered umbilical cord blood to four patients at his clinic between July last year and this April without reporting it to the government. Shinozaki and Tsubo are suspected of involvement in the unauthorized treatment of three people from around February 2016 to April this year.

Shinozaki’s company was selling cord blood at 30 to 50 percent of the price of treatment, and the police are looking into the gains made by Shuto and the others.

Yoshiki Sawa, the head of the Japanese Society for Regenerative Medicine, told a news conference in July that cases like these might just be the tip of the iceberg.

“Don’t jump at medical treatments with poor credibility without carefully considering them first,” he said.

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