Stem cells are not a panacea; they do not cure COVID-19, autism, arthritis or other neurological diseases. But you might think they do if you have seen some of the deceptive advertisements available these days.
Based on the numerous ads and videos online and in newspapers making such claims, you would not know that most stem cell interventions are experimental. With a 463 percent increase in the number of clinics offering these experimental treatments in Texas over the past five years, according to the Baker Institute’s policy report, we’re likely to see more and more misleading advertising that could have dire consequences for Texans.
Currently, there are misleading advertisements in the form of TV advertisements, billboards, flyers, and online advertisements. If you type “stem cell therapy” into Google Maps you will find dozens of clinics in the Dallas-Fort Worth area that offer stem cell procedures that are not clinically proven, some offer the same stem cell therapy for multiple conditions such as chronic pain, multiple sclerosis, autoimmune diseases and lung diseases. That should be a red flag.
These advertisements often provide the reader with misleading information, making it difficult for patients to differentiate between accepted and proven treatments versus experimental procedures. Some less ruthless clinics promote stem cell interventions by only referencing certain aspects of biomedical research. Most omit information about the risks involved.
Most clinical advertisements for stem cells fail to disclose potentially harmful consequences of various treatments, such as infection, blindness, and even death. Clinics also manipulate the public by using jargon and technical language, only highlighting positive reviews from patients, and sometimes even falsely claiming affiliation with regulatory organizations. Many patients who seek stem cell treatments are also unaware that these procedures have not been approved by the Food and Drug Administration or proven to be safe or effective.
To improve patient awareness and safety, we suggest the following:
- Clinics should be required to post a physical disclaimer that stem cell treatments are experimental;
- Clinics should publish a statement that stem cell procedures are experimental and not FDA approved;
- The stem cell registry should be changed to require clinics to report all side effects of stem cell treatments.
While current Texas law (HB 810) requires clinics to report all experimental stem cell procedures performed, we recommend instead focusing on disclosure of their side effects to identify risks and issues with specific products or clinics.
These recommendations ensure patients receive accurate information about the unproven status of these interventions. Adding disclosure statements to clinics and advertising ensures patients understand the experimental nature of the procedure they are undergoing. If they decided to proceed with treatment, they would do so with sufficient knowledge of possible side effects. These disclosures may also stimulate further conversations between patients and physicians about these therapeutics and alternative interventions.
Common misinformation in science and health is a critical issue that cannot be ignored. Texas policymakers must take concrete steps to ensure the public understands the risks of unproven stem cell interventions and to protect the public from unscrupulous actors.
Kirstin RW Matthews is a Fellow in Science and Technology Policy and Akshaya Venkatesh is an intern at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy. You wrote this column for the Dallas Morning News.
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