Over the years I’ve been keeping my eyes open for advertising by stem cell clinics and lately the trend is big splashy ads in mainstream media including large daily newspapers such as the SacBee, the San Francisco Chronicle, and now the Seattle times (see below from today’s).
These kinds of big ad buys on front or back pages can cost tens of thousands of dollars or more. What this means generally is that clinics are already earning or hope to make hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars in profit from vulnerable patients. Do the patients get anything real in return in the way of the “stem cells” helping their health conditions? What about safety issues and other risks?
This goes beyond science and medicine to consumer protection as well. Many clinics use seminars that are often mentioned in the ads, what I call stem cell clinic infomercials, to recruit new customers. There’s some evidence that certain clinics do not even have living stem cells in what they inject into patients, although the product is marketed and discussed at seminars in a way to make consumers think it is living stem cells, it definitely works, and is safe. A consumer website called Ripoff Report has posted on a patient’s self-reported negative experience with Stem Cell Institute of America, the sponsor of the Seattle Times ad above. I don’t know the accuracy of the material there, but it does raise questions.
The fact that there are so many of these ads now showing up across the U.S. also is a sign of the continuing geographic spread of the stem cell clinic industry. This proliferation is arguably in part because state medical boards and the CBER branch of the FDA have passively stood on the sidelines for years even though the clinics generally have no FDA approval and little if any data to support what they are doing.
A few clinics’ practices using stem cells are within a narrow window of both homologous use and minimal manipulation (e.g. largely unmanipulated bone marrow cells used only for orthopedic applications) whereby they most often do not need the full FDA drug approval for what they are doing. However, in my opinion most clinics out there today do not clearly fit into that category and so instead should be getting FDA approval in advance of marketing.
The bottom line is that this big collective, unapproved and for-profit human experiment by hundreds of clinics continues…the mushrooming, expensive ads are a flashing neon red flag of just how big this problem has become.