Signals Blog

I’ve been thinking about unapproved stem cell treatments a lot recently. First, I read this article that hailed the arrival of stem cell treatments in a small community in western Canada. There were many statements in the article that concerned me, but I only addressed a few major ones in my letter to the editor.

An article in the National Post, by Tom Blackwell, takes a much more balanced view of stem cell clinics, which seem to be popping up everywhere. While patients might be excited by the availability of stem cell treatments close to home, many in the stem cell community do not see this as a good thing, including University of Minnesota bioethicist Leigh Turner, who had this to say on the topic in reference to his study in Cell Stem Cell:

“This is a marketplace that is dramatically expanding before our eyes — we were aware early on and tracked it early on, but I don’t think we knew the scope and size of the market. Brakes ought to exist in a marketplace like this, but where are the brakes? Where are the regulatory bodies? And how did this entire industry come into being in a country [United States] where stem cell-based interventions and the medical devices that produce them are supposed to be regulated by the FDA?”

Co-author of the study Paul Knoepfler, of UC Davis, points out that “Many people in larger metropolitan areas can just drive 15 minutes to find a clinic offering these kinds of services instead of, say, traveling to Mexico or the Caribbean. I think this reflects a change from what we’ve seen documented in the past and is different from what we typically think about when we think of stem cell tourism.”

But a proliferation of North American stem cell clinics hasn’t reduced the need for regulating stem cell tourism abroad. A group of international researchers has published a perspective saying it’s time something is done on a global level to address this issue. Megan Munsie and John Rasko, two of those authors, also discuss the issue here (in an article that is free for everyone to access).

Patients should be very cautious about paying for unapproved stem cell treatments that may or may not work, and may or may not seriously harm them. Before embarking on a treatment or participating in a dubious clinical trial, patients should educate themselves. CIRM has produced a video on “4 things to know about stem cell clinical trials.” Watch it below.

Patients are encouraged to participate in legitimate clinical trials that advance medical knowledge and patient care, with the goal of testing safety and effectiveness. This is important for the industry so it can progress, and, as Dr. Knoepfler notes: “There is a real risk that as clinics proliferate, if we don’t address it in a more proactive way, as we see negative outcomes for patients grow and people get mixed bags of information about stem cells, then this could really negatively impact the public perception of this research.”


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Stacey Johnson

Stacey Johnson

For almost 20 years, Stacey has been providing strategic communications counsel to government, corporate, technology and health organizations. Prior to that, Stacey was at the CTV Television Network, first as a researcher, then as a story producer for “Goldhawk Fights Back,” a special ombudsman segment that aired weekly on the National News and Canada AM. Before joining CCRM as the Director, Communications and Marketing, Stacey was the Director of Communications for the Canadian Arthritis Network. Stacey is editor of Signals. You can follow Stacey on Twitter @msstaceyerin.