Patient Advisory: Sneaking Stem Cells Out of USA May Be Illegal Smuggling

warning patient advisory sign, smuggling stem cells
Smuggling stem cells across the US border is probably illegal.

Some stem cell clinics are pressuring their own patients into potentially breaking federal law through something like smuggling.

A big problem for certain clinics is how to bring the paying American customer (i.e. the patient) and the biological product that they are selling derived from the patient’s stem cells together outside the reach of the FDA so a lucrative stem cell transplant can occur.

These clinics realize that exporting a human stem cell biological product out of the US with the intention of clinical use without regulatory permission is almost certainly illegal. In addition, to do it legally, US Customs would likely require an export fee.

But the clinics just want to make money and not deal with rules.

Their solution?

Shift the risk to their own patients.

stem cell alphabet soupCertain clinics based at least in part outside the USA are asking their American patients to pack an unusual kind of luggage when they travel out of the USA to the clinic: human stem cell biological products made from the patients’ stem cells.

What do I mean?

Some clinics apparently are asking patients themselves to carry stem cells across the US border into other countries or areas such as Mexico, Latin America, and Asia.

It’s a nasty, double-cross by the clinics to their own paying customers, who are most often vulnerable patients.

Carrying human stem cells out of the US without the permission of several federal agencies (FDA, CDC, and Customs) most likely is illegal in most circumstances.

There are at least two applicable FDA webpages on this here and here. FDA verbiage sure seems to suggest you can’t just waltz your stem cells across the border with no permission:


Export of Drugs and Biologics Under the FDA Export Reform and Enhancement Act of 1996

A draft guidance document is available that summarizes and explains the basic requirements and procedures for exporting human drugs (also drug components) and biologics that may not be sold or distributed in the United States.  This guidance document also summarizes and explains the requirements for exporting drugs that are approved for marketing in the United States, but which are being exported for an unapproved use.  The draft guidance document is available online: Guidance for Industry: Exports Under the FDA Export Reform and Enhancement Act of 1996.  It also provides contacts for additional information.

Export Certificates for  Drugs/Biologics

Firms exporting products from the United States are often asked by foreign customers or foreign governments to supply a certification relating to products subject to the Act.   An export certificate is a document prepared by FDA containing information about a product’s regulatory or marketing status.

The clinics and perhaps some of their patients may argue that since the cells “belong” to the patient that they can do whatever they want with them, but that’s not the way the law works.

Sure you are “taking” endogenous stem cells with you inside your body wherever you travel including across international borders.

However, once cells are removed from a patient’s body and particularly once they are made into a biological product with market value, those cells now belong to the company and are subject to many federal laws related to export amongst other things.

Even if the clinic gives the patient the rights in writing to complete ownership of the cellular product (which I have never heard of actually happening), that still does not make it legal for the patient (or the clinic for that matter) to transport the biological product from the US without regulatory permission.

The FDA must give pre-approval, in most cases I believe the CDC must also approve, and  Customs may well have export fees to be paid since the cellular product likely has value in the thousands of dollars.

What should patients do?

If a clinic asks you to carry your own stem cells across the US border, what should you do?

The wise thing to do would be to ask the clinic if the FDA, CDC, and Customs have given permission for you to do so.

Also ask–have any export fees already been paid?

If they answer “yes” to these questions, ask to see documentation.

If indeed everything seems kosher, please also let me know in that case as I’d like to highlight in a positive way a company for conducting compliant export of human biological stem cell products intended for clinical use.

If the clinic cannot answer these questions comfortably, it seems to me that the wisest thing for you to do is not to proceed as you could find yourself in legal hot water.

Talk to your lawyer and your doctor for advice.

Even they may not be sure about the law as export law as it pertains to human biological products intended for clinical use is extremely complex.

Don’t let the clinic try to trick you into shouldering the legal and potential financial risks of sketchy exports. You could be charged with smuggling. There have been criminal cases related to stem cell smuggling both in the US and one still under investigation in Korea.

Of course another risk is that during transport the stem cell product may be compromised putting you at risk from a future transplant involving it.

How are the clinics asking patients to carry the stem cells across the border? If they are asking you to do it with the cells at room temperature that is a recipe for disaster as cells are not stable. That seems unlikely.

If they are asking you to carry them inside of cryovials with dry ice or liquid nitrogen that may keep the cells more stable, but there are no guarantees that the stem cells won’t be compromised.

Also, I believe that if you are hiding the liquid nitrogen container in your car, for example, as you drive into Mexico, and you do not declare that you have the stem cells in your possession to the US Border Agents or to Mexican officials, you must know that you are doing something wrong. Thus, not all the responsibility is on the clinic. You are knowingly putting yourself in legal jeopardy.

Finally, I’ve tried to look into it, but countries such as Mexico, Korean, and others often have their own very complex human biologics import laws. The clinic could be putting you at risk to break the laws in those countries as well.

Bottom line? Don’t do it.

12 thoughts on “Patient Advisory: Sneaking Stem Cells Out of USA May Be Illegal Smuggling”

  1. Mr. Knoepfler, I don’t think patients care who your sources are, but are gravely concerned about what clinics are doing this. As a patient advocate, I would hope that you would consider sharing the names of these clinics as you haven’t had any problem in the past with talking about other various “shady” clinics by name. Patient safety is at stake! Thanks so much!

    I’ll be repetitive here as I’ve posted the same comment on the LinkedIn discussion….”Clinics asking patients to smuggle their own stem cells across borders?” I feel like I’m reading a National Enquirer, Star Magazine, or British Tabloid piece! The thing is, patients are in touch with thousands of other stem cell patients around the world. As I’ve stated many times before, we share EVERY detail in order to help each other as much as we can. Never once in the past 5 years since I decided myself to get adult stem cell treatment have I ever come across another patient who said they had to smuggle their own cells to on overseas clinic! If this actually has happened somewhere, then my take on it is that it’s a very isolated incident, and the clinic needs to be exposed. I agree with Barbara, if your true motive is to protect patients, I would expect, that you would contact an investigative journalist to pursue and uncover this crazy, dangerous scenario you claim to have inside knowledge on. This could be a BIG story for a journalist! I myself will reach out to some journalists to see if I can get to the bottom of this. Patient safety is at stake!

      1. I have no personal knowledge that you have or have not. It would just be an assumption on my part either way. If you have, then bravo! As you know patient safety is at stake!

  2. Isn’t it hypocritical that FDA tries to hinder patients’ efforts to turn to stem cell treatments as a last resort while it promotes GMOs and covers up deaths attributed to GMOs? Many stem cell treatments have been practiced overseas long before FDA had even a knowledge of it. The FDA supported GMOs are already killing people. That is the FDA we trust.

    1. The FDA is certainly not a perfect organization. In my soon-to-be published book I propose 5 FDA reforms related to stem cells.

      However, I’m always skeptical when I hear of alleged cover ups. Do you have evidence of an FDA coverup of the GMOs? Also do you have evidence of deaths from GMOs?

      1. You can find excellent research on the topic at Berkeley. …cover-ups happened in the 80’s. Circa 100s people…

  3. This article like a sensationalistic, tabloid story, as if designed to increase traffic to his blog and also terrify patients needlessly, Stem cells investigation, use and made treatment was done in the all world before get goverment clearance in US, the world’s most advanced stem cell we found in Argentina, Spain, France and other countries before US started with the technic…
    On the other hands, clinics outside US don´t need human stem cell biological product from US, they have the local products.
    I know several clinics where are working with Stem Cells out side of US with great results and satisfactory outcome.

  4. “Some clinics are apparently asking” sounds like heresay, speculation & wishful thinking on your part, Paul. I’ve researched stem cell clinics around the world and have personally been to two and I’ve never be asked nor had suggested to me to transport bodily tissues; either across any border or anywhere for that matter.
    Please do share the names of these clinics of which you have personal knowledge/experience of having been asked to transport bodily tissues. Lets get these clinic names out publicly to protect folks. After all, that is your goal, correct? Protecting the public?

  5. Pingback: News and Blogs Round Up 27/08/13 | Stu's Stem Cell Blog

  6. I would indeed happy to learn more from officials. There are many people who have their cord blood or bone marrow cells frozen in commercial cell banks (recently I heard about ADSC banking services too). How do these banks deal with the shipping issues? Similar to sperm banks? Sperm sample is a commercial one, while autologous sample hard to define as commercial, unless it’s donated.
    So, there are questions that awaiting to be addressed.
    Thank you for bringing it up for discussion.


  7. Paul,
    There is proven safe way and method for transporting frozen cells in dry shipper. Frozen sperm cells and embryos, as well as other cellular products are transported for decades within the country and internationally. Therefore, there is no concern on that matter. As far as I know in above cases there is no additional fee beyond the shipping fee, if it shipped by currier. If it´s carried by the owner of the material, it´s free. Airlines and TSA aware of the sensitivity of the biomaterial and even allow to bypass the x-ray screening, if the center provides appropriate description of the content.
    So, the question is back to the roots: when cellular material is a drug and when it is not.
    I don’t have experience in transportation of commercial drugs and bioproducts.
    Hope it helps to clarify the issue.

    1. Hi Nathan,
      Thanks for the comment.

      Patients are not legally nor practically qualified to safely transport frozen human clinical specimens. Also if the container is in the trunk of their car in the heat for hours, I am concerned about problems that could arise.

      Also, transporting strictly research-related cells by Fedex on dry ice or LN2 (something I’ve done many times myself) is a totally different matter than shipping a commercial human biological product. I myself do not have experience in the latter, but some research on my part and discussion with those who are experts has indicated to me that transporting a clinical product with commercial value across an international border is not legal without permission of the FDA for example in the US and likely the CDC and Customs too.

      Even if the human biological product in question is not technically a drug (a matter open to debate of course), I believe patients still cannot legally export human biological products intended for clinical use from the US without permission.

Comments are closed.