Key Mayo Clinic stem cell webpage is overexuberant & outdated

The Mayo Clinic does some great research on stem cells and regenerative medicine. However, at times I’ve felt that a few Mayo researchers are overexuberant. This mainly relates to certain not-yet-proven stem cell and related offerings.

Fitting with that perception, the Mayo website also has some inaccurate stem cell content that leans toward overstating things.

Today’s post is focused on those website problems. As an update, in response to my post the Mayo has updated their page and made it a lot better, which is good news.

The Mayo Clinic.
The Mayo Clinic.

Why Mayo website content is so important

It’s crucial that the content is exactly right because many people turn to The Mayo website for authoritative information. Also, Google ranks Mayo very highly on health-related material including on stem cell and regenerative medicine topics.

For example, the main Mayo Clinic stem cell website I’m talking about today with the problems is the #1 Google Search result for some very common stem cell internet searches.

Let’s take a look at that page and go through the problems.

Mayo Clinic website risks misleading readers

Here it is in archived form: Stem cells: What they are and what they do. In my view, this information page is surprisingly problematic and is just flat-out wrong in some cases. Look at this:

Until recently, researchers thought adult stem cells could create only similar types of cells. For instance, researchers thought that stem cells residing in the bone marrow could give rise only to blood cells.

However, emerging evidence suggests that adult stem cells may be able to create various types of cells. For instance, bone marrow stem cells may be able to create bone or heart muscle cells.

This research has led to early-stage clinical trials to test usefulness and safety in people. For example, adult stem cells are currently being tested in people with neurological or heart disease.

As to the second paragraph, the consensus is that adult stem cells do not, in fact, have such potency. For example there is no solid evidence that bone marrow stem cells can make heart muscle cells.

In addition, so far clinical trials of stem cells for damaged hearts largely have been discouraging. Many such trials are still ongoing and it could be that very specific types of patients may benefit from certain kinds of cells, but I lean skeptical overall. Note that I recently reviewed a paper from Mayo researchers on stem cells for heart disease and found reasons for concern.

Brain cells too?

The third paragraph taken in the overall context above from the Mayo website passage also perhaps implies that marrow cells might make neural cells. That seems highly unlikely at this point.

Decades ago some research for a time suggested hematopoietic stem cells might have some unexpected potency to make neurons or other brain cell types. However, it turned out to be an artifact of cell fusion. Not unexpected adult stem cell potency.

Some folks believe that there are even pluripotent stem cells in adult human tissues like VSELs or MUSE cells.  I don’t believe such cells exist in the body. There’s a remote chance these cells come into being and only transiently exist during harsh purification protocols.

I believe the only naturally-occurring pluripotent cells in adults are germ cells. Life would be a lot more interesting if there were other adult pluripotent stem cells, but there just aren’t consistent data to support that. Only a few groups in the world are working on VSELs and MUSE cells. The VSEL literature also has serious problems. 

Over-exuberant Mayo Clinic text on stem cells and diseases

Mayo also makes other problematic statements on its website:

People who might benefit from stem cell therapies include those with spinal cord injuries, type 1 diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, Alzheimer’s disease, heart disease, stroke, burns, cancer and osteoarthritis.

Stem cells may have the potential to be grown to become new tissue for use in transplant and regenerative medicine. Researchers continue to advance the knowledge on stem cells and their applications in transplant and regenerative medicine.

Perinatal stem cells. Researchers have discovered stem cells in amniotic fluid as well as umbilical cord blood. These stem cells have the ability to change into specialized cells”

That long disease list in the first paragraph is too exuberant. Some of this sounds more akin to what we hear from for-profit but unproven stem cell clinic marketing.

There’s no concrete evidence from late-stage clinical trials supporting stem cell use in any of the diseases noted in the first sentence at this time except cancer and maybe burns.  There’s a possibility that stem cells could help arthritis but it’s not clear yet and may only work for some types of arthritis. I’m optimistic in the long run on stem cells for type 1 diabetes, but the field isn’t there yet and it’s not a sure thing.

Mayo shouldn’t be saying such things, especially without more context. Even just tweaking that first paragraph to say “might benefit in the future” would help make this more realistic.  I’d add as well that this is a very difficult area of clinical science and many trials do not succeed. Including very challenging conditions like spinal cord injury, ALS, and Alzheimer’s seems especially risky. The whole thing just feels over the top.

Also, contrary to the statement at the end of the above quote, perinatal stem cells may have no ability to change into specialized cells unless you count cord blood stem cells becoming other blood cell types or cord wall MSCs making bone, cartilage, or fat cells. Mayo seems to be implying much more than that.

The big picture: time for a refresher on the Mayo web content

Of course, as I said earlier, the Mayo Clinic does so much fine work on stem cells and regenerative medicine overall, but some elements of their website content in this area just aren’t good enough.

Some of this text may just be old and outdated. For example, they talk a lot about therapeutic cloning (SCNT) but with the advent of iPS cells, therapeutic cloning hasn’t been pursued with human cells much for many years.

Why does this all matter?

Their website likely raises false hope and may encourage the public to get unproven therapies that pose risks with little chance of benefit. I also worry about profiteering stem cell clinics using overexuberant statements from Mayo for their own marketing purposes.

We’ve seen something similar happen with overstatements by Duke researchers on autism being used by for-profit clinics selling unproven cord cell therapies for autism. That has resulted in a big, tangled mess.

Again, the Mayo Clinic stem cell webpage in question isn’t just some rando website that nobody reads. It’s often the first page that Google serves up to searchers looking for accurate, up-to-date information on stem cells. It needs to be stronger and more precise.

2 thoughts on “Key Mayo Clinic stem cell webpage is overexuberant & outdated”

  1. Dear Paul
    Wonder why you commented negatively on the VSELs and MUSE cells while discussing the concerns with the Mayo Clinic website. I agree there was a controversy more than a decade ago regarding studying VSELs by flow cytometry but the technical reasons behind the controversy were pointed out. It is important to come out of the past, leave the past behind, and look ahead with an open mind. Being open-minded is extremely important to scientific discovery. These stem cells are small in size, rare and normally exist in G0 stage of cell cycle. They enter the cell cycle in response to chronic injury to restore homeostasis and in pathologies like cancer. In an earlier article, we showed that mechanical scratching of the mouse uterine lumen resulted in increased numbers of OCT-4 positive stem/progenitor cells that undergo asymmetrical, symmetrical divisions and clonal expansion in an attempt to restore homeostasis [PMID: 35123545, see Fig 4]. Today we have robust protocols to study these stem cells in multiple adult tissues and am very pleased to share a recent article discussing that rather than mutations in somatic cells – epigenetic changes in the VSELS in response to environmental insults initiate cancer [PMID: 38457060].

  2. jsherleybc206c85c7

    Dear Admin:

    Thanks for this important commentary. I hope you have also shared it with responsible parties at the Mayo Clinic. As The Niche often reviews, there is a lot of misinformation about stem cell science and medicine online, in the news media, and now on social media. The leadership of institutions like the Mayo Clinic have an even greater obligation and accountability to provied the most scientifically sound information now when the public is so often chided to get their information from “trusted sources.” Of course the Mayo Clinic is not alone in this shortcoming; and new AI search data by companies like Google are even worse. Often the problem is not simple “overexuberance,” but instead it is being grossly incorrect. In addition to misleading and misinforming non-experts, many experts who are new to fields of stem cell science and medicine end up confused as well about what is correct information.

    James @ Asymmetrex

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