Google gets it dangerously wrong on stem cell side effects

In trying to figure out how unproven stem cell clinics get so many customers, I’ve found that these firms can in part thank Google.

I recently wrote a guest piece on STAT News about this problem and called on Google to fix it.

However, just this week I stumbled on another case of Google search results benefiting clinics and in my view putting patients at risk that is so bad I had to write about it.

Google stem cell side effects
Searching about stem cells on Google can be risky and have side effects like people ending up at unproven stem cell clinics, which are proliferating across the U.S. and other locations like out of control cells.

Searching for search logic

Why would Google help such firms reach more customers by ranking them so highly in their search results?

There’s not much logic to how Google is doing things here as its mission is about supplying the best, authoritative information. Yet these clinic businesses are selling scientifically and medically unproven injections. The stem cell shots are also often risky and very expensive. In my opinion, as a stem cell biologist, the content on most clinic websites is not authoritative and trustworthy.

I don’t think Google is intending to help these firms. Even so, the search engine giant’s algorithms often just don’t work well in the health space and can be gamed.

This situation needs fixing quickly.

stem cell clinics Google
Screenshot of Google search results for stem cell therapy side effects shows clinics ranking too highly. Stem cell clinics know how to take advantage of the search engine when it comes to stem cell-related searches, often ranking above what I call the true authorities like the FDA, the NIH, and universities doing stem cell research. For example, in the above screenshot you can see that a Caribbean clinic called DVC Stem ranks #3 just below the American Cancer Society and Dana Farber. A Minnesota clinic ranks well too and above The Mayo Clinic and the UW. Note that for this screenshot I had to scroll past the #1 and #2 results to show the others.

You may have heard that stem cell clinics can no longer advertise on Google.

However, somehow the clinics often seem to control what people find when they search for stem cell info on the search engine. It’s akin to another form of advertising.

Stem cell clinics still have Google’s number

Earlier I wrote here on The Niche about how one particular (seemingly fairly obscure to me) Caribbean stem clinic called DVC Stem is doing extremely well globally on Google.

DVC stem cell pops up #1 or near the top on a whole bunch of Google search results about stem cells.

In fact, DVC is apparently so good at the Google search game that it often ranks above pages from what I would say are the true authorities.

Other clinics rank puzzlingly well too.

What’s the new case I found that sparked concern and this post?

Best info on stem cell therapy side effects per Google doesn’t cut it

People interested in stem cell therapies often search on Google for similar types of information. The importance of Internet searching for patients taking next steps to consider actually getting stem cells is highlighted by a recent paper from a team led by Shane Shapiro and Zubin Master (see especially their Table 3).

One common and very important search relates to stem cell therapy side effects.

People considering getting stem cells need rock-solid info on risks and possible side effects, and that info should be provided by those without conflicts of interest.

Yet Google search results in this area are puzzling and in my view, they put the public at risk.

For instance, the DVC Stem cell clinic now ranks near the top for Google searches on stem cell side effects. I would think that the NIH, the FDA, the Mayo Clinic, and places like the University of Washington would be the authorities on stem cell therapy side effects. However, Google likes DVC Stem better and I believe that tells us something about how the search engine is in a sense malfunctioning in the healthcare space.

See the screenshot above from an anonymized Google search for stem cell side effects.

Stem cells portrayed by clinics as safer than we can be sure

Remarkably, the DVC clinic page on side effects that is ranked so highly by Google begins in this oversimplified way:

“Yes, stem cell therapy is safe.”

Remember these folks are selling unproven stem cell therapies so maybe from that business perspective stem cell therapy should be portrayed simply as safe?

Then they say that their clinic has never had long-term adverse events. I don’t see publications from this group on their stem cell offerings and data on side effects.

Also, this clinic says that the cells in their therapy cannot be rejected. That seems like a dubious claim to me as a stem cell biologist as the cells are coming from another person. While some stem cells have a lower propensity to trigger an immune response in a recipient, that’s not always going to be the case.

The side effects webpage gives only a few specifics such as this:

Common short-term side effects immediately following the cell transplant have been fatigue, headache, and nausea. These effects typically subside between 1-2 hours.

That’s just about it.

The rest of the page seems to me to be full of material about stem cells unrelated to side effects.

With all of this in mind, according to Google this is still one of the best and most authoritative sources in the world about stem cell therapy side effects?

Another clinic ranking highly, another puzzle

Moving on, another unproven stem cell clinic, this one in Minnesota, consistently ranks very highly too. On Google, it is above the Mayo Clinic, the UW, and many other authorities for this same search on stem cell side effects.

The Minnesota clinic’s side effects page that Google search likes so much has just a few sentences on stem cell side effects and the text is generic in my view. There are no resources.

And, of course, the page promotes the “treatments” they are selling.

Per Google, this is another top global authority in this space. Exactly how?

More broadly clinics selling stem cell injections have a conflict of interest on this topic. For this reason, I’d imagine that they tend toward downplaying possible side effects so as not to worry potential customers.

Google should be smart enough to figure that out.

Call to action

As I’ve said before, Google needs to change its search engine optimization and ranking system in the healthcare space. It needs to take into account when a website is marketing unproven stem cell shots and other unproven regenerative therapies.

More broadly, they should adjust their rankings for all healthcare-related searches in the same way. Beyond stem cells, I’ve found many other examples of websites selling unproven medical care but killing it on Google search.

What happens next?

Unfortunately, it’s possible Google won’t make any changes at all, or at least not without more pressure about how risky the status quo is.

Let’s keep advocating with Google to take prompt action to fix this situation.

10 thoughts on “Google gets it dangerously wrong on stem cell side effects”

  1. Michael: I receive an electronic news letter or blog from a network of clinics who’s founder is a Dr. Chris Centeno. I am not a patient of this clinic, (Regenexx) but I think their founder, a Dr. Chris Centeno has some interesting things to say about the state of the art regarding today’s regenerative medical therapies. Naturally, he’s going to talk favorably about the network of clinics he has founded. I’m not sure that I can give you a web address to his blog because that may violate the terms/conditions of using Dr. Knoepfler’s blog, The Niche. I think it is just a GOOGLE search away. Similar to The Niche, I receive Regenexx’s blog about once per week.

  2. Vioxx was “proven safe and effective”. Also, “Pfizer has been a “habitual offender,” persistently engaging in illegal and corrupt marketing practices, bribing physicians and suppressing adverse trial results. Since 2002 the company and its subsidiaries have been assessed $3 billion in criminal convictions, civil penalties and jury awards.” Shall I continue?

  3. Just based upon my experience and seemingly the experience of other regenerative medicine clinic patients, many of the clinics ARE doing something other than selling “false hope”. To many of us they are selling therapies that in fact are proven. They work for us. You can generate all kinds of data based on perspective having nothing do with experience and simply say “stem cell clinics sell false hope based on scientific statistics. ” Statements like this essentially mean nothing. The proliferation of regenerative medicine clinics could mean that they are selling therapies that work and the medical and health care gate keepers (academic medicine, big pharma, medical device manufacturers) and other dogmatists don’t like that. They don’t like it because they have not had much success in controlling it. And when they can’t control it they just try to scare you with it. For the last few decades it is in fact PR firms who have tried to sell us on embryonic and embryonic like stem cell “research” using quite a bit of hype and false hope themselves. They have nothing to show for it except a bunch of published papers to dangle in front of the public boasting about discovery. Discovery but no therapies or cures.

  4. It’s just page rank. The more clicks, the higher the search result appears. (And Google does institute measures to detect “click” farms.) Perhaps, the clinics you criticize just do a good job of selling hope to people who are losing theirs. While it probably doesn’t indicate how any of these clinics would benefit anyone, hope is a great generator of interest, including clicks.

    1. But the clinics are selling false hope and using hype. Google has indicated with its ad policy that it’s not a fan of that business model. Also, in this case the clicks to some extent translate into real people going and getting injections of cells not proven to be safe and effective.

  5. Critics of regenerative medicine sure like to use the word “unproven” quite a bit. Perhaps there is something wrong however with the manner in which “proven” therapies are determined. Perhaps it’s not the the patients frequenting these “stem cell clinics” who are the problem or where they get their information from. Perhaps it is the critic who has seemingly never received any sort of treatments in them (Like Ms. Selph) using direct experience to determine whether or not regenerative medicine truly has something to offer. Imagine that! Using experience rather than just emotions like “disgust” to determine the veracity of today’s regenerative medicine.

  6. I attended an information session about stem cell therapy because I received a speical invitaiton. It was 99% testimonial and about 1% foggy evidence. The speaker was an excellent sales person and out of 30 people in the room, 29 registered for a free consultation with speical treatment pricing if they scheduled an exam today. I left in disgust.

  7. Databiologics will be posting our Second Annual Report on the data we have obtained across the country in over 7,500 patients. This report will include the results of the SAFETY and efficacy of various Orthobiologic treatments with Orthopedic conditions. Perhaps Google and you will find this of interest.

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