A clinic called DVC Stem selling unproven stem cells has popped up prominently on the web in the last couple of years. It’s a relatively new and in some ways puzzlingly dominant presence on the stem cell section of the Internet at the moment.
We should pay attention to these kinds of changes on the web as they can impact many people’s healthcare choices, sometimes in a negative way.
What changed over the last couple of years so that DVC Stem is so prominent on the web? Much of it seems to be related to Google. Update: I have a new piece out on STAT News on the broader issue with unproven therapies and Google Search so also check that out.
The rise of DVC Stem on the web raises serious broader issues with Google search in the unproven biomedical sphere.
What’s in this article?
What is DVC Stem? | Why does DVC Stem cost $25,000? | Claims review of many conditions treated | Supplier Vitro Biopharma | Where Google comes into play | Better Google ranking than NIH | Looking ahead
What is DVC Stem?
DVC is a Cayman Islands stem cell clinic. It sells expensive, unproven stem cell interventions for many conditions.
In my opinion, the offerings do not have a strong biomedical science foundation, which is why I call them “unproven”.
This clinic fits in with many of the unproven stem cell clinics we often see here in the U.S., especially those selling birth-related and fat cell injections.
However, being in the Caribbean DVC doesn’t have to worry about the FDA in the same way.
Why does DVC Stem cost $25,000?
Based on their website, it seems the main general kind of offering at the clinic costs $25,000.
That’s a very high price tag for stem cell injections that aren’t scientifically proven to work or be definitely safe.
Similar offerings here in the U.S. often go for around $5,000 to $8,000. See my post on stem cell therapy cost.
Of course, some of the more unusual things offered by DVC aren’t generally for sale here or only rarely at American unproven clinics. See a screenshot below of just a few of the long list of many conditions DVC claims to treat.
The Disclaimer at the bottom of the DVC website seems much less promising than the rest of the content about the stem cell “therapies” for sale:
“Disclaimer: stem cell therapies are constantly being researched and developed, with many promising results recorded every day. However, no cellular therapies are widely considered standard practice as of today. No treatment offered by DVC Stem is intended as a cure for any condition, disease, or injury. All statements and opinions provided by this website are provided for educational and informational purposes only, and we cannot guarantee the effectiveness of any treatment on any one individual. The results will vary for each patient. It is vital that each potential patient does their own research based on the options we provide during the consultation so that they can make an informed decision on treatment.”
Review of DVC Stem claims of treating serious diseases
My concerns about DVC Stem in part relate to the very serious medical conditions that they claim they can treat with stem cells.
For instance, the site claims that they can treat ALS with stem cells. How do they back that up? I don’t believe they can.
At present, I see no concrete evidence that stem cells can be used safely and effectively to treat ALS. Overall, a few clinical trials are ongoing in the cells for ALS research space, but the data so far aren’t clear or definitive. For that reason selling a supposed ALS therapy now is a red flag to me.
DVC Stem also lists COVID-19 as something they can treat with stem cells. Here again, in my view there just aren’t concrete data to back up such an approach. Trials are ongoing with various kinds of cells, but it’s not known if any will be safe and effective for COVID.
There are even fewer data to back up the idea of stem cells for Alzheimer’s disease, another offering this clinic sells.
They also say that they can treat COPD with stem cell therapy. I just wrote a fact-check post on stem cell therapy for COPD. No one should be selling stem cells for COPD at this point in my view.
Vitro Biopharma cell supplier
What kind of cells does the DVC clinic use?
They mention that they get their umbilical cord MSCs from a U.S. laboratory, which is “FDA registered”. Who is this American stem cell producer? A Colorado firm called Vitro Biopharma.
From the DVC Stem website (embedded URLs removed, emphasis mine):
DVC Stem is partnered with Vitro Biopharma, an award-winning medical laboratory located in Golden, Colorado, fully FDA-registered, cGMP compliant, ISO 9001, and ISO 13485 certified. Cells are only sourced from the American Association of Tissue Bank (AATB) certified suppliers of full-term, ethically US donated human umbilical cords. The selection of these donated tissues is exceptionally regulated and strict. All of its cells are expanded using safe and standard protocols and are then flown overnight in sub-zero containers directly to our clinic for immediate treatment. The cells are expanded to as many as 300 million cells before being administered. For more info on its partner lab, visit vitrobiopharma
This got me wondering. Is it permissible for a U.S. firm to export a non-FDA-approved drug product (the allogeneic umbilical cord MSCs) to another country like the Cayman Islands? If permission is required, does Vitro Biopharma have the OK from the FDA or other government agencies for this export? I don’t know. The FDA regs on exports are very complicated.
The cellular product that Vitro Biopharma produces might be good quality. It sounds like the cells are prepared in a very solid lab. However, I’m not a big fan of the business model of supplying cells to clinics that then sell them for conditions for which they haven’t been proven safe and effective.
A brief look on the web found that Vitro Biopharma is a publicly-traded company here in the U.S. that was formerly called Vitro Diagnostics.
They apparently also work with or supply cells to a number of firms including another stem cell clinic called Giostar.
Where Google comes into play
Getting back to the Internet search part of this, why is Google important here?
While Google has had an ad ban in place against stem cell clinics since 2019, some clinics seem to be getting around that via mastering Google search.
For instance, DVC Stem is often ranking first or on the first page of stem cell-related search results these days. It probably relates to investing in something called search engine optimization or SEO. What’s SEO? It seems to equate to making Google happy with your site including in some very technical ways in terms of how your website is set up with code and such.
How does DVC Stem rank so highly? Is their SEO amazing? It’s hard to say, but they must be doing something right with Google. They do have a lot of content, but it generally feeds back into promoting sales of their unproven stem cells. On most pages I clicked through there was an “Apply for treatment” button potential customers can click.
Their relatively new appearance so favorably in Google search kind of reminds me of the trajectory of the stem cell promotion site Bioinformant. Interestingly, DVC Stem appears to be or was a Bioinformant client and so is the Giostar clinic firm mentioned earlier.
In addition, if you search for “DVC Stem” on Google, one of the People also ask questions Google brings up near the top of the page directs you to the Bioinformant site on “What stem cell clinics do you trust?”. Of course, Bioinformant is a big fan of DVC Stem.
Google ranks DVC over NIH, FDA, American Lung Association
Some simple searches highlight more of the issues with Google on stem cell topics.
If you search for “stem cell therapy for COPD” on Google, DVC Stem is the #1 result, ahead of results from NIH, the American Lung Association, and other clearly authoritative sites.
The DVC stem cell therapy for COPD page is promotional in nature. They want to bring in new customers for the unproven stem cell therapies at that $25,000 price tag.
DVC also ranks above sites like those of the NIH and the FDA as well as specialist societies or academies of physicians for some other important Google searches as well.
The big picture and looking ahead
In addition to DVC, some other clinics and clinic promotion sites also sit atop Google searches at times so this is a general problem.
In the big picture, you might think if you have biomedical content that is promotional in nature aiming to recruit new customers to get unproven injections of cells then that might impact your ability to rank well with Google. That’s what I thought at least.
So far that does not appear to be the case and it’s a big deal.
We’re not talking about searching for the best running shoes or a great recipe for lava cake.
When Google fails to negatively factor the promotion of unproven therapies into their Internet search results, many real people are potentially put at risk via the search engine. This includes both financially and in terms of their health.
It seems more broadly that the clinics also leverage people’s natural desire to search for hope. Looking for a chance to feel better or deal with a very serious illness is understandable. Sadly, in my view Google often provides false hope via its search results about stem cells that direct people to unproven clinics as the supposed authorities.
The search engine giant should do much better.