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Smoking out Stem Cell Charlatans

The International Society for Stem Cell Research plans to evaluate the claims of clinics offering experimental stem cell treatments of dubious value.
June 17, 2010

From spinal cord injury in China to heart disease in Thailand, desperate patients trolling the internet can find a number of clinics and companies offering purported stem cell therapies of dubious value and great expense. According to Irving Weissman, president of the non-profit International Society for Stem Cell Research, there are more than 200 purveyors of such treatments.

“This is not rare, it’s common and it’s our responsibility to fix it,” said Weissman, a physician and biologist at Stanford University, in his opening address at the society’s annual meeting in San Francisco this week. These purveyors often offer treatments for a broad range of disorders but provide little proof that their therapies truly involve stem cells, and little experimental evidence exists in the scientific literature to back their claims. A 2005 Technology Review feature, “The Problematical Dr. Huang Hongyun”, highlighted the troubling trend in a profile of a Chinese physician offering cell therapy for spinal cord injury.

The ISSCR is now taking steps to shine light on stem cell snake oil schemes by asking these entities to provide very basic information on their practice; whether it has approval from an ethical review board to perform the treatments and whether it has applied for approval from the Food and Drug Administration or its equivalent in other countries. The results of the inquiry, which will likely take several months, will be posted on a new website, www.closerlookatstemcells.org. ‘If they don’t have either of those, they’ll be listed on the site automatically,” says Weissman.

The public can submit names of clinics or companies they would like evaluated via the site, which also lists a set of questions patients can ask providers about experimental treatments. Sean Morrison, a stem cell biologist at the University of Michigan and a member of the society’s board of directors says the initial response to the site has been substantial. Despite being up for just a few days, dozens of patients have made inquiries.

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