Stem cell hype and the dangers of stem cell “tourism”

Significant scientific discoveries and innovations quite naturally lead to great enthusiasm about the benefits that may flow from them. One danger, however, is that enthusiasm may lead to hype, or exaggerated publicity and extravagant claims. Hype can lead to unrealistic expectations of both the benefits that will flow to the public and how quickly they will be achieved. A problem with excessive hype is that it may mask the fact that a therapy is still in experimental or research phases, which makes it difficult to properly communicate the risks of clinical trials. In addition, where the hype concerns medical benefits, untested clinical applications touting these benefits often lure patients into expensive and even harmful treatments. There are stories of this happening in some instances with stem cell therapies.

Since the isolation of human embryonic stem cells, news of stem cell developments and policy discussions have been accompanied by stories of the promise of stem cell therapy. Stem cell researchers have walked a fine line between enthusiastically describing the long-term potential of stem cell therapies which helps get support for their work and in cautioning that science and research take time and sustained support. Part of the tension for researchers, lies in the need to work slowly and carefully, and yet also to attract industry funding based on the potential commercial and clinical applications from their work.

All the hype around each new scientific development in the stem cell story has lead to stem cell quackery and stem cell tourism. Stem cell quackery is similar to other types of medical quackery that follow an area of medical or biotechnological research promising real medical benefits. In particular, where there is such promise of benefits coupled with funding or regulatory restrictions such as in the United States and Canada respectively, waiting for stem cell therapies can seem interminable for people in need.

There are always individuals and companies who will take advantage of the necessary lag between research and clinical applications to hold forth the promise of contemporary cures and therapies. A SCN-funded review by researchers at the University of Alberta of internet sites offering stem cell therapies concluded that in general “indications for therapy are indeterminate or over-broad, benefits are overstated, risks are understated, and certainty of knowledge in the field is inflated.” In order for a patient to give informed consent to any stem cell therapy or research trials the risks need to be discussed and understood. The International Society for Stem Cell Research (ISSCR), a leading professional group, has issued a guide for patients and their families advising them to approach stem-cell therapy with extreme caution.

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Citation format: Knowles, Lori P. “Stem Cell Hype and the Dangers of Stem Cell ‘Tourism’” Stem Cell Network, For the Public, Ethics and Policy, Spring 2010. http://www.stemcellnetwork.ca/uploads/File/whitepapers/Stem-Cell-Hype.pdf