Ask a doctor about stem cell therapies and they will tell you the field has a lot of promise but little immediate use for patients. Ask the Internet, and you will find websites touting unproven stem cell therapies that promise everything from improved skincare, beating disease, to producing anti-aging effects.
Clinics offering these “treatments” are not a rare phenomenon either. A recent paper published in the Cell Stem Cell journal does a good job of highlighting just how widespread the stem cell industry happens to be.
The researchers used English-language searches of a database and found 417 unique websites that offered stem cell therapies, with the largest concentration being in the United States. Each website was linked to at least one physical location offering treatments. The top five rankings were as follows:
- United States: 187 websites
- India: 35 websites
- Mexico: 28 websites
- China: 23 websites
- Australia: 19 websites
A related study on direct-to-consumer stem cell marketing found 351 different businesses in the US that were offering interventions at 570 locations, so the level of results do depend on search strategy and criteria. However, the underlying fact remains the same: these clinics exist, there are a lot of them, and they are offering stem cell therapies.
With regards to the types of stem cells used at these clinics, the majority of websites (~83%) advertised adult stem cells with unspecified types falling in second (~12.7%) followed by embryonic and fetal (~8%) or amniotic (~1%). These numbers add up to more than 100% since some clinics offered multiple types of stem cells. However, approximately half of them did not indicate where the cells were originating from. Interestingly, 4.1% of the sites were also advertising the use of non-human stem cells.
As for what benefits these clinics are purporting to offer, the leader at just under half was anti-aging and skincare stem cell therapies. Other popular offerings included treatments for diabetes, sports or orthopedic injuries, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, spinal injuries, autism, AIDS, hepatitis, and much, much more. Chances are that if you can think of a condition, you can find at least one clinic offering to treat it with stem cells.
Stem cell clinics skirt the laws by either opening in countries with limited regulation (Mexico, China, etc.) or operate under the guise of clinical trials (United States, Australia, etc.), or market treatments under the unregulated veil of alternative medicine.
Whether they are being used for cosmetic procedures like skin rejuvenation or are administered to someone with cancer, these stem cell clinics are causing harm to patients. They give false hope, drain wallets, and can even lead to people rejecting proven medical treatment in the hope of a fake cure. In the worst case scenario, the stem cell treatment itself can cause harm or kill a patient since no procedure—especially one that involves injecting foreign cells into the body—comes without risk.
How to Protect Yourself
Sites and clinics peddling unproven stem cell therapies can appear remarkably legitimate. Here are some quick ways to tell if you’re dealing with a scam:
- They offer anything related to anti-aging or skincare benefits
- They purport to treat a large variety of ailments, especially if they are wildly different from each other
- They describe themselves as an “institute” when their building is just one practitioner’s office
- They claim to be part of a clinical trial but require you to pay to enter
- If they offer journal articles as “proof”, check out the links. Most of the time they don’t support what the site is claiming
- They avoid making specific claims or emphasize “supporting the body”
- They appear hostile to the “medical establishment” or the FDA
Berger, I., et. al., “Global Distribution of Businesses Marketing Stem Cell-Based Interventions,” Cell Stem Cell, 2016; http://www.cell.com/cell-stem-cell/pdfExtended/S1934-5909(16)30210-7.