Beware of Bogus Clinics Offering Stem Cell Cures

By Eliza Strickland | December 4, 2008 8:50 am

stem cells greenClinics around the world are offering unproven stem cell treatments to desperate patients with diseases like Parkinson’s and multiple sclerosis, a new report says, and consumers should be on the lookout for snake oil salesmen. A new set of guidelines issued by the International Society for Stem Cell Research (ISSCR) gives consumers some hints on how to identify the scammers: Beware, it warns, of clinics claiming to treat multiple diseases with the same cells, boasting that there is no risk, and offering patient testimonials – rather than results from clinical research – as evidence that their treatment works. “Patients want to believe so much that a treatment is helping them that they can convince themselves that is has” [New Scientist], the guidelines caution.

In an accompanying study in the journal Cell Stem Cell, researchers examined the direct-to-consumer advertising that shady clinics use to attract customers. They looked at 19 Web sites that advertised stem cell treatments in several countries, including China, Mexico, and Russia, suggesting that stem cell clinics are becoming a lucrative part of the “medical tourism” industry. Researchers wrote: “The average cost of a course of therapy among the four websites that mentioned costs was $21,500, excluding travel and accommodation for patients and care givers. And examples of serious treatment side effects can be found” [Reuters] for the types of treatments being advertised.

Stem cells, found in embryos and certain adult body tissues, can grow into many different types of cell; researchers are investigating ways to use them in regenerative medicine, in which damaged cells or even whole organs could be replaced. While the research is still in its early phases, news reports of potential treatments and cures have raised the hopes of many patients, ISSCR official Sean Morrison says. “There are many doctors tapping into the public’s sense of stem cells’ potential to cure in countries with looser medical regulations…. But the details of stem cell treatment are much more complicated” [National Geographic News].

The survey of Web sites advertising stem cell treatments found that the clinics offered to treat a wide range of ailments including Alzheimer’s, spinal cord injury, blindness, and heart disease. The survey found that the sites often played down the experimental nature of the treatments and made little mention of the side effects that could result. “I think these Web sites are dangerous,” said [George] Daley, a Boston stem cell researcher. “They overpromise effectiveness and safety of the therapy and they completely underestimate and underinform about risks. … (Such) overhyped marketing directly to the patient is putting patients at risk of financial exploitation at the very least, and physical danger at the worst” [AP].

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Image: National Science Foundation

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine
  • http://larianlequella.com Larian LeQuella

    And this is why there is a need for a site like http://whatstheharm.net Sadly, lack of critical thinking is what allows people to be duped like this. While I am normally a “Small Government” type of person (although with very liberal social stances), I must recognize what I call the “douchebag factor” in human dealings. Those are the ones who willingly take up the mantle of snakeoil salesman in order to bilk (and even harm) other people.

    Sorry, didn’t mean to rant!

  • Claire

    From Simon LeVay’s “When Science Goes Wrong”:
    “To counteract the onslaught of Parkinson’s disease, a patient undergoes cutting-edge brain surgery using fetal transplants, and is later found to have hair and cartilage growing inside his brain.”
    This procedure was done in China. It was upon autopsy that the “new baby” was found growing inside the patient’s brain.
    Incidently, LeVay’s book is a must-read.

  • Gary Ansorge

    Blaming science for the foolish marketing used to sell these “cures” is just silly. Money is all these folks want and damn the buyer.

    Glad I stumbled over this science news site(ok, I actually came here from the Bad Astronomy site). It will be added to my regular science reads.

    GAry 7

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/80beats/ Eliza Strickland

    Glad to have you, Gary, and any other BA blogees who stumble over!

  • http://larianlequella.com Larian LeQuella

    I too came over because of CNN “getting the stoopid”. We tend to be rather casual over there, so hopefully we don’t destroy the community of your blog. ;)

    By the way, is there some way that those of us who subscribe to the print magazine can get a permanent log in so we can bypass the recaptcha thing and all that?

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/80beats/ Eliza Strickland

    Hi, Larian– I just turned off the ReCaptcha thing, which I’d been meaning to do ever since we got a better spam filtering plug-in. So comment away!

  • http://larianlequella.com Larian LeQuella

    W00t! :D

    Although I saw on the DNA court case that there was a spam post for a bit. Hopefully your plug-in works (is it a Glade plug in by Johnson & Johnson?).

  • Terminal Patient

    Maybe if the FDA would make experimental medications and procedures available to TERMINAL PATIENTS (do they think they’re protecting us from something?), people wouldn’t have to seek their treatments outside of the country. Yes, we know there are sharks out there, but there are also legitimate clinics that are in compliance with the ISSCR. Sadly, for some of us the only option is to go out-of-country for treatment or die. Even more sad are the patients who cannot afford that option. It’s time to get the FDA out of its love-lock with Big Pharma and back to serving the people.

  • Keith Diederich

    This is the sort of behavior that has led to the founding of the Repair Stem Cell Institute: http://repairstemcells.org

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