Beware Dodgy Doctors Touting Stem Cell “Cures”

How desperation drives people to try dubious stem cell treatments: Internet Scambusters #818

Breakthroughs in the use of stem cells to treat seriously ill patients have led to all sorts of unproven claims about the effectiveness of some of the procedures.

How do you know who to trust and who’s telling the truth?

And now for the main feature…


Beware Dodgy Doctors Touting Stem Cell “Cures”


On the frontiers of medical science, we keep hearing about stem cell treatments that provide seemingly miracle cures.

But are they? Or do they promise more than they can deliver? And do some operators actually mislead people into parting with large sums of money on the basis of high expectations?

If you’ve been looking for a possible treatment that uses stem cells, read on.

What are Stem Cells?

In very simple terms, stem cells are cells that live in many organs and tissues of the body that seem to be more or less identical wherever they are.

They don’t do much until the body is injured, when they swing into action.

Then, they seem to assume the identity of cells in the injured part and start reproducing themselves to repair the injury.

By harvesting unused stem cells, often from the patient, experts in this field have been able to use them to treat various illnesses.

But we’re in the very early stages of stem cell technology and there’s still a lot to learn about what they can and can’t do. Result: Expectations often outstrip the reality of what can be done.

This has led to warnings about undertaking dubious or experimental treatment for certain medical conditions that could actually result in worsening the condition.

Most recently, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) expressed worries that desperate patients may be resorting to illegal and harmful stem cell treatments.

The agency says it is taking a closer look at what it describes as “dishonest and unscrupulous stem cell clinics.”

“Stem cells have been called everything from cure-alls to miracle treatments,” the FDA says. “But don’t believe the hype.

“Some unscrupulous providers offer stem cell products that are both unapproved and unproven. So, beware of potentially dangerous procedures — and confirm what’s really being offered before you consider any treatment.”

Earlier this year, Consumer Reports noted how a sufferer of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) had paid $6,000 to a clinic that suggested that, by extracting stem cells from his blood and then reinserting them via an IV drip, his breathing could be improved.

The patient claimed the treatment had not improved his condition, telling the publication, “It was a bad call. But I couldn’t breathe at the time, and when you can’t breathe you’ll try just about anything.”

He subsequently joined a class action lawsuit against the clinic, although the organization claimed that many of its “thousands” of patients had experienced an improvement in their quality of life.

“As evidence of stem cell therapy’s potential grows, so does confusion over what this emerging medicine can and can’t do,” Consumer Reports added. “And with few consumer protections in place, unscrupulous doctors are exploiting that confusion for profit.”

Many patients desperately searching for a breakthrough treatment are attracted by ads inviting people to participate in clinical trials. But some of them are not really trials or they are not conducted rigorously.

The magazine’s medical director, Dr. Orly Avitzure, says there’s a big difference between treatment based on sound scientific research and those being sold for a small fortune without sufficient evidence that they work or are even safe.

Consumers simply aren’t aware of the difference between the two, he adds.

What to Look For

The FDA, Consumer Reports, and the International Society for Stem Cell Research (ISSCR) have issued the following guidance for those considering stem cell treatment.

  • First, beware the hype. They point out that mainstream doctors conducting stem cell trials “usually don’t promote their offerings with big, flashy advertisements that promise dramatic improvements or total cures.”
  • They also don’t usually charge hefty fees.
  • Be extremely cautious of doctors claiming to be able to use stem cells for a wide variety of conditions. This is a specialist field with individual doctors concentrating on particular treatments.
  • Ask questions. “Any doctor who offers stem cell therapy should be able to explain where the cells will come from, what will be done to them before they’re injected into your body, and how, exactly, they will resolve your illness or injury,” the organizations warn. “He or she should also be able to offer you proof of safety and efficacy, even for experimental treatments. Don’t settle for patient testimonials.”
  • Check for approval. A legitimate clinical trial should be vetted and approved by the FDA. The term to look for in the fine print is an indication the trial has secured “investigative new drug” (IND) approval from the FDA. Ask to see the approval letter.

For more on this, see the Consumer Reports article, The Trouble with Stem Cell Therapy.

It’s easy to understand how those desperate for treatment, especially for supposedly “incurable” illnesses, are anxious to try anything but, when it comes to stem cell treatment, know that you could actually be making your condition worse if you go down the wrong path. Always consult your trusted medical professional.

Alert of the Week

Con artists are using LinkedIn, the social media site for business people and professionals, to promote a new variation of the secret shopper scam.

Using hacked LinkedIn accounts, they invite friends to join a testing program by buying eBay gift cards from various chain stores.

The crooks send a dud check for $2,500 to their targets, telling them to buy ten $200 gift cards and keep the rest for themselves.

Then they have to photograph the cards with their numbers and security codes exposed, and send the pictures to them.

You can guess the rest. The check is bogus, and victims have paid for $2,000 of spending by the crooks on eBay.

Time to close today, but we’ll be back next week with another issue. See you then!