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Gene Therapy Tourism

One of the countries that play a major role in medical tourism for gene therapy treatments is China. This is not surprising as China is the first country in the world that has approved commercial gene therapy products which are being hailed as a cure for certain types of cancer (see also section "Gene Therapy in China"). As a result, people from around the world are traveling there in the hope that these new wonder drugs, called Gendicine and Oncorine, will succeed where all else has failed. The number of medical tourism patients is unknown, but estimates are that several hundred patients traveled to China for treatment.

In October 2010, a report was published entitled “International Medical Tourism From the Netherlands for Gene Therapy”. The goal of this study was to identify the scope of patients from the Netherlands who travel abroad for treatment with experimental or registered gene therapy products, and to investigate the nature of the treatments products.

Gendicine and Oncorine
China’s first approved gene therapy was Gendicine, produced by Shenzhen SiBiono GeneTech in 2003. It is an adenovirus vector carrying the p53 tumour-suppressor gene. An number of Chinese hospitals offer cancer treatments with Gendicine (see video 1 and 2). The treatment is very expensive, and seems to work also for many other tumor types.
In 2005, a second gene therapy product was registered that was developed by Sunway Biotech for treatment of head-and-neck nasopharyngal squamous cell carcinoma. This product, Oncorine (H101), is an oncolytic adenovirus that targets selectively cells that under-express the tumour suppressor protein p53. For more information see section "China and Gene therapy".

Concerns
However, these registrations have been questioned by a number of experts and specialist in the field. Patients must be warned that the treatments are experimental at best and that Chinese hospitals are cashing in on desperate patients. The registration of these gene therapeutic medicines to treat head and neck cancer followed a fast track at the Chinese State Food and Drug Administration (SFDA), where safety was considered more important than efficacy. The SFDA is the Chinese counterpart of the US FDA. Approval seems to be given on the basis of tumour shrinkage, rather than extension of patient lifetime. There has been quite some concern from gene therapy researchers elsewhere in the world as to the quality of the trials performed and thereby the safety and efficacy of the treatment (Edelstein, 2007). So far, there has been no official statement from a Society for Gene Therapy on concerns related to gene therapy tourism.

Video 1: China's Cancer Drug (YouTube, 7:05)
Video 2: Terminal cancer Cure using Chinas Drug Gendicine (YouTube, 7:04)