Every year millions of people cross borders to undergo medical treatments that are either unavailable in their home country or too expensive. For many, this is a last resort to ease the pain of a debilitating disease or defy a terminal diagnosis; for others the goals are purely cosmetic. But in the past few years a new type of “medical tourist” has emerged: those seeking to radically extend their lives.
There are more older people than ever before – and more people in search of longevity. In the UK, people over the age of 65 made up 19% of the population in 2019, a jump of 23% from 2009, in a period when the total population only increased by 7%. And recent advancements in the science of ageing have given them hope that they don’t have to go so gently into that good night after all.
But while science has made some promising breakthroughs in studying the causes and implications of ageing, real solutions are some way off. In that gap between supply and demand, a host of fraudsters and scam artists are ready to take advantage of anyone gullible enough to believe they can pay a little extra for a few extra years among the living. Many offer their services abroad, in countries where regulation is light.
Medical tourism has produced a steady stream of horror stories since cheaper air travel kickstarted a rise in its popularity, from botched nose jobs and broken smiles to a fair number of deaths. Despite this, it remains a gigantic industry. According to Patients Beyond Borders, the global medical tourism market was worth $74bn-$92bn (£59bn-£73bn) in 2019.
A prime example is stem cell therapies, regenerative treatments aiming to use the body’s building-block cells to rejuvenate and fix damage caused by disease or deterioration – an area of research with a lot of potential but relatively few established and approved treatments available to patients. However, the potential effects, most often exaggerated or unsubstantiated, lure the desperate to travel far and wide to seek treatments, sometimes from practitioners of ill repute. According to research published last year, the leading countries for stem cell tourism are the US, China, India, Thailand and Mexico. The same report states that “stem cell technologies are often associated with inflated expectations of their therapeutic potential”.
Stem cell therapies can also help with cancer and other illness, but during my reporting for my book The Price of Immortality: The Race to Live Forever, I found a number of examples of US-based stem cell companies offering miracle cures and solutions to ageing. One clinic in Iowa was found to have made outrageous claims in presentations to potential clients. “Anti-Aging: Mesenchymal Stem Cell infusions turned back the hands of Father Time about three years! Would you like to get back three years?” read one slide of sales material, collected by the state attorney general’s office that was suing the company for false advertising.
Even when prosecuted or disciplined in one country, stem cell practitioners have been known to move on and continue to offer the same services elsewhere. One in Florida had his medical licence revoked in 2015, after two of his patients undergoing stem cell therapy had died. When I looked up the name of the doctor, he was listed as the chief science officer at another stem cell company. A cheerful receptionist told me on a call that the clinic was still operational and carrying out procedures in the Dominican Republic, a medical tourism hotspot.
Stem cell therapies are not the only anti-ageing offerings luring people abroad for treatment. The nascent field of gene therapies is in a similar position, where promising research has yet to result in accessible interventions. I also recently heard from a life extension enthusiast in the US who planned to travel to France to undergo plasmapheresis, a procedure he claimed would rejuvenate his blood and give him a better chance of living until he was 500.
In some cases, patients don’t need even need to fly abroad to access drugs that have the potential to make them live longer. I spoke to an elderly woman in London who buys the cancer drug dasatinib from a website in India, and takes it in the hope it will destroy senescent cells, which are thought to play an integral role in the ageing process.
Gerontologists and other researchers find the practice frustrating. Several scientists I spoke to, particularly in the stem cell field, are worried these clinics are making a quick buck on the back of their breakthroughs while damaging the reputation of these nascent medical technologies. They preach patience, a virtue in short supply for people who see the end of their lives on the horizon.
Medical tourism presents clear dangers. Patients may not find the same standard of care they are used to at home, and it is harder to establish that the doctor or clinic is legitimate. Patients can also suffer from side-effects if they fly home too early after a procedure; communication barriers can also cause issues.
For someone seeking treatment they can’t afford at home or a last-gasp unapproved cure for a deadly disease, these risks are worth taking. But for people merely seeking to improve their chances of living radically extended lives, the gamble is much larger, particularly when there’s no evidence that any medical intervention could work. In a best-case scenario, they leave with a lighter wallet. In the worst, their quest to live a little longer is cut ironically short.
The Price Of Immortality by Peter Ward (Melville House, £20). To support The Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.