Stopping Stem Cell Snake Oil

SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA—Clinics that peddle unproven stem-cell treatments are on warning from the International Society for Stem Cell Research (ISSCR). The society has been speaking out for several years against purveyors of dubious therapies that have little or no scientific basis. Now they are going a step further. This month, the society launched a new Web site for patients considering such treatments, which clinics around the world claim can treat dozens of conditions from paralysis to lupus. Clinics that don't meet minimum standards for independent patient safety oversight will soon appear on a black list, warning potential patients away.

At the society's annual meeting here last week, ISSCR President Irving Weissman, a stem-cell scientist at Stanford University, said that such clinics prey on vulnerable—often terminally ill—patients, taking their savings as well as precious time from their family and loved ones. "And they use us," he told the meeting delegates, when they try to profit from the legitimate excitement surrounding stem-cell research. He also issued a warning to the society's members: "Some in this audience," he said, have lent their names as scientific advisers to some of the clinics in question. Later at a press conference, he told journalists that the society has sent letters to several members, warning them to dissociate themselves from the clinics. Those who don't comply will face sanctions or possible expulsion from the society, he said.

The Web site, called "A Closer Look at Stem Cell Treatments," features a thorough list of questions for patients and their caregivers to ask about potential treatments and a copy of the society's Patient Handbook on Stem Cell Therapies in English, French, German, and Italian. It also lists the Top 10 Things to Know About Stem Cell Treatments, including why and how unproven treatments can be worse than no treatment at all. Patients are encouraged to submit the names of clinics, individuals, or organizations that offer treatments for society experts to review. ISSCR will ask the purveyor whether its treatments have been approved by an independent ethics-review board and whether it has authorization from the relevant legal authority, such as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration or the European Medicines Agency. Clinics that provide sufficient documentation within a few months will go on a list indicating that they have appropriate oversight and patient protections in place. Those that don't will appear on a second list of clinics that failed the review. The society has received dozens of inquiries in the 2 weeks since the Web site launched, Weissman said. The reviews will take at least several months, he says, so the first clinic lists should appear this autumn.