Stem cell tourism, safe, effective & routine? Not so much.

Author: Lisa Willemse, 04/24/13

Co-authored with Geoff Lomax, CIRM’s Senior Officer to the Standards Working Group from the “Understanding Stem Cell Controversies” Workshop organized by the Stem Cell Network in Montreal. This article is cross-posted on the CIRM blog.

Dr. Harry Atkins speaking at Understanding Stem Cell Controversies in Montreal.

“Stem cell tourism” “medical tourism” “unproven cell therapies” – the phenomenon goes by many names but the issues are the same and Canadians are struggling with them too. At Understanding Stem Cell Controversies, the Stem Cell Network sponsored workshop, there have been a lot of discussion about the fact people are seeking out and in some cases being injected with cells that not been shown to be either safe or effective at treating disease.

Harry Atkins of the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute raised the topic on Tuesday and it has carried over into today’s conversation. Dr. Atkins emphasized the importance of thoughtful and responsible use of new treatments for patients. Early trials involving the controlled use of cell therapies in patients and follow up are critical, he said, for making sure that patients are getting injected with cells that will treat their disease and are safe.

Tim Caulfield, of the University of Alberta, reminded the group that there are “bogus” clinics out there taking advantage of people in desperate situations.  In 2008, Caulfield took a look at how these clinics attract patients and found that there were three main messages used in the online marketing:

  1. The therapies are safe.
  2. The therapies are effective.
  3. The procedures are routine.

Since that study was published, there has been a concerted effort on behalf of the research community (led by the International Society for Stem Cell Research among others), and to a lesser extent, the medical community to challenge these claims by pointing to the lack of scientific evidence to support them. One would think that an international effort such as this would make a difference in the messaging and marketing techniques employed by the clinics.

Surprisingly, this has not been the case. Caulfield has just completed a follow up study, once again looking at online portrayals of stem cell therapies. He expected to find that the clinics would have adopted marketing that echoes calls for scientific credibility. Instead, the same messages – safe, efficacious, routine – remain firmly entrenched as the mantra of stem cell tourism clinics. With one not-so-subtle change: they’ve turned up the volume, screaming their mantra rather than simply stating it. And the fact that the clinics persist suggests that it’s been successful.

For those who have been actively speaking out against bogus therapies in the past five years, this is disheartening news. No doubt, it is one of the reasons the topic has repeatedly crept up in discussions here in Montreal and will continue to be an item of focus as the workshop progresses over the next day.

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Lisa Willemse

Lisa Willemse

Director of Communications at Stem Cell Network
Lisa is a science communicator with 15+ years' experience in the fields of regenerative medicine, language and literacy and high-speed networking/computing research. She launched this blog (first as the Stem Cell Network Blog) in 2009, and served as co-editor until April 2015. Among many other roles, she currently contributes to a number of blogs and publications, including the Canadian Science Publishing blog, Genome Alberta blog, Scientific American, and iPolitics. Follow her on Twitter @WillemseLA.
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