January 26, 2021

The Niche

Trusted stem cell blog & resources

Google to block unproven stem cell clinic & gene therapy ads

Laurie McGinley and William Wan of the Washington Post broke the story this morning that Google has a new biomedical ad policy that may really shake things up for stem cell clinics. Google announced the new policy on its blog that will restrict advertisements for unproven stem cell clinics, cellular and gene therapies. This is great news.

Watch out for unapproved stem cells FDA video Google
Screenshot from video on new FDA stem cell warning piece.
Google Ads for stem cell clinics have definitely driven hundreds if not thousands of customers to unproven stem cell clinics. It’s very likely that many of the patients who have ended up in the hospital due to bad outcomes from clinic injections first went to those firms because of Google ads. These ads and certain particularly risky clinics also are a real threat to the legitimate stem cell and gene therapy fields.
From the Google post:

“We regularly review and revise our advertising policies. Today, we’re announcing a new Healthcare and medicines policy to prohibit advertising for unproven or experimental medical techniques such as most stem cell therapy, cellular (non-stem) therapy, and gene therapy. This new policy will prohibit ads selling treatments that have no established biomedical or scientific basis. The new policy also includes treatments that are rooted in basic scientific findings and preliminary clinical experience, but currently have insufficient formal clinical testing to justify widespread clinical use.”

The FDA likely helped spark this new policy, if nothing else indirectly via their increased action and blunt public statements against what they (and Google, probably not coincidentally) call “bad actors” in this area. Also perhaps not coincidentally, the FDA came out with a major announcement/warning on stem cells a few days ago. You can see a screenshot from the FDA video in the warning that I’ve included here.

There’s a potential caveat though about the new policy, which will go into effect next month.

I wonder if the policy will extend to how Google ranks the websites of the firms selling the unproven biomedical offerings. For instance, even if Google won’t run ads for unproven stem cell clinics, if the clinics’ websites still rank highly in Google results for a search like “stem cells autism”, Google is still in essence facilitating the risky clinics getting customers. At the same time, I wonder how well Google will be able to fine tune the policy so as to not impede appropriate stem cell and gene therapy online material. Some clinics and supporters of certain clinics are going to pushback, although I’m not sure there’s much they can do. From the Post story:
“Some industry representatives criticized Google’s new ad policy on Friday. The ban on ads will unfairly devastate “good” companies along with “bad actors” without discriminating which ones are trying to treat patients safely and follow evolving FDA regulations, said Andrew Ittleman, a Miami lawyer who represents several stem cell clinics.”
It’s worth noting that some stem cell clinics, while selling unproven offerings, are nonetheless FDA compliant. There’s also a wide spectrum of clinics out there and some not following FDA regs are definitely in a high-risk category unto themselves. The Post story rightly mentioned that some clinics will likely adapt their marketing and ads to try to bypass the policy.
        Overall, I see the new policy by Google as a positive step and support them taking it. Perhaps some mainstream media outlets will follow suit and also adopt policies whereby they do not run these risky biomedical ads.
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