Stem cell charlatans

Posted 25 June 2010

Researchers try to protect patients from stem cell charlatans

The International Society for Stem Cell Research has launched a patient education website “to smoke out the charlatans” who prey upon desperately ill people and their families, said Irving Weissman. 

“I don’t think that any society has ever done this before,” the Stanford University researcher and president of the society said in addressing the opening of their annual meeting on 16 June, in San Francisco. 

The problem is large and growing. A recent web search identified more than 200 practitioners or clinics making claims for stem cell cures, most of the operations are located in developing countries where regulatory oversight is weak. One location in China claims to have treated over 8000 people, generating over $200m (£137m; 165m) in revenue.

The society’s new website,, offers basic education about stem cells. It says that a reputable clinical trial will have a body of scientific literature behind it; will be scrutinised by an independent review board; and will have the approval
of the relevant national regulatory authorities. And it will not charge for participating in the trial. 

The website also allows a person to submit the name of a clinic for review. The society will then ask the clinic for documentation on ethical and regulatory review of the proposed treatment. That information will form a publicly available online database. 

Dr Weissman said he recently gave a public lecture in Great Falls, Montana, his hometown with a population of a little over 50 000. Afterwards a farmer came up and said he had paid $80 000 for a stem cell “cure” for his multiple sclerosis. The doctor said, people mortgage
their homes and are apart from their loved ones in desperately seeking a cure where there is none. 

“It is our responsibility to say, those aren’t stem cell treatments. The [clinics are offering] unproven therapies,” he said. “Those people want to treat your wallet, not you.” 

Stem cell tourism is “an exploitation of the promise of stem cells.” Proponents of stem cell treatment are going overseas to avoid stringent regulations common in the US and other developed nations, said Jeanne F Loring from the Scripps Research Institute. She was speaking at a public forum the society had sponsored the previous evening. 

Patient testimonials are a hallmark of these operations; “what you will not see is any scientific evidence,” she said. “There will be no guarantee that you will be helped by that treatment, and there are no guarantees that you won’t be harmed.” 

She said these clinics often use cord blood or placental cells, which may not be appropriate for the intended use. They may use cells derived from animals, or inject cell solutions that are tainted with other products. 

Dr Loring said if patients could procure a sample of the cells that are going to be injected, freeze them, and send them to her, she “will analyse it for free and tell you what those stem cells are.” ([email protected]

Forum panellist Douglas Sipp, with the RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology in Kobe, Japan, said, “Patient autonomy is a great thing, but you shouldn’t over-reach. A lot of people wouldn’t make decisions about their car that they are now making about their body.” 

Researchers try to protect patients from stem cell charlatans
Roehr BMJ.2010; 340: c3271

BMJ 2010;340:c3271 


2 comments to Stem cell charlatans

  • Marius Potgieter

    Harris, I don’t understand why this article is published on CamCheck as a subheading of Stem Enhance (On the righthand side of the page). Is there something that I do not understand ?

    I have read the article and agree with the heading “Stem Cell Charlatans” – it is blatantly obvious (I have read many such adverts/claims and have seen many video’s (e.g. 60 Minutes) where they are exposed. But listed under Stem Enhance?
    Your comments will be appreciated.


  • Harris

    Thanks for drawing my attention to this. You are correct, this article should not be listed under the StemEnhance tag and I will resolve this.

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