Stem cell ads: Promise much, deliver little

Michael Joyce produces multimedia at and tweets as @mlmjoyce

Paul Knoepfler PhD is “disturbed and concerned.” Here’s why.

Knoepfler is a stem cell researcher and professor at the University of California-Davis School of Medicine. Over the past couple of years he has noticed more and more big budget ads for unproven stem cell therapies showing up in major American newspapers, such as these:

From left, clockwise: ads from the San Francisco Chronicle, Sacramento Bee, and Seattle Times

Perusing a dozen or so of these ads–and some are full-page spreads–you begin to see some common promises, such as…

  • …stem cells will help people avoid surgery and addictive medications
  • …they can “regenerate & repair” … some say “naturally”
  • …the treatments involve no pain, no side effects, no prolonged recovery

Many of the ads also include coupons or offer “free” seminars that qualify people for discounted treatments (discount amount stated; full price not stated).

Paul Knoepfler PhD

Most of the clinics advertised promise to treat dozens of very different problems. The three most common include orthopedic issues (pain in every major joint from your ankles up to your neck), neurologic diseases (including Parkinson’s, stroke, traumatic brain injury, multiple sclerosis, and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis – or ALS), and a host of autoimmune diseases (like rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn’s disease, and lupus).

Can a single treatment do all this? (And more, including “effective” treatment of COPD, blindness, depression, and diabetes, to name a few).

“The short answer is ‘no,'” says Knoepfler, who’s been following the boom of hundreds of stem cell clinics across the country in his blog.

“Hypothetically, stem cells of various kinds could help a lot of different conditions. But it doesn’t make sense that just one type of stem cell — like from fat or bone marrow — could treat a variety of conditions from head to toe. Both from a scientific and common sense perspective, how would some fat cells help your vision if they were squirted in your eyeball? The logic and evidence is missing. But you could imagine if you were losing your vision, and were desperate, you might be willing to take more risks.”


Jeanne Loring Phd

Jeanne Loring PhD, is a stem cell researcher and professor at the Scripps Research Institute.

She agrees with Knoepfler that, not only are some vulnerable people being preyed upon, but the claims made in the advertising are not backed by science.

“Much of what is being injected aren’t even stem cells. And the ones we’re told come from fat or bone marrow aren’t even capable of living in our bodies beyond one day. And they certainly can’t turn into heart cells, or neurons, or retinal cells like they may claim.

Whenever I see the people who run these clinics they run away from me. They don’t want to talk to real scientists. They don’t want to their approaches questioned. Because 99 percent of them know they’re pulling the wool over people’s eyes. This is marketing, not science. Ask yourself: Why are they advertising in the newspaper?”

Leigh Turner PhD

And just as important, how are they getting away with it?

Leigh Turner PhD is a bioethicist at the University of Minnesota. It was Turner, along with Knoepfler, who in 2016 documented  at least 351 stem cell businesses nationwide pushing unproven stem cell therapies. He says the widely held notion that these stem cell clinics only exist overseas is now clearly outdated.

The central issue in his opinion is: Where is the oversight?

“It’s not just about desperate people losing lots of money, it’s about genuine and tangible harms being done. Yet we have this growing market where people can make these dramatic marketing claims about unlicensed and unproven treatments without evidence, without safety data, and without proof of efficacy. There’s a lack of regulatory activity that is basically operating like a green light for these clinics and this kind of advertising to pour into the marketplace. Where is the FDA? The FTC? The consumer protection agencies? And what about the state medical boards?”

From an Alaska Airlines inflight magazine

You may be wondering: If these ads are promoting unapproved treatments, then what are stem cells legitimately used for? The FDA has approved stem cells for use in a handful of transplant procedures, some cancers, as well as some immunologic and blood disorders. Unfortunately, as all the researchers I spoke with mentioned, the current hype generated by unproven treatments often draws attention away from legitimate research and advances in stem cell therapy.

But guidance in navigating this complex topic is available. Here are 3 excellent starting points:

And, lest we forget, there are real people at the core of this story. Last week I interviewed a man left permanently blinded by a retinal stem cell procedure that he was told helped “100 percent” of people and “helped them read at least 2 or 3 more lines on the eye chart.”

Now he can’t even read the big “E” at the top of the chart from an arm’s length away.

That man is George Gibson. And next week, in a special podcast we’re thinking of calling The Wild West of Stem Cells, you’ll hear more of Gibson’s story, as well as more from the scientists quoted above.

It’s the story these advertisements don’t tell you. [UPDATE: That podcast is now published and available HERE]

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