From Texas to Tokyo, cell therapy clinics are springing up, claiming to cure everything from multiple sclerosis to cancer. Desperate patients who are not covered by insurers or national health reimbursement schemes are spending vast sums on unproven treatments that could be ineffective at best.
This has attracted the attention of regulators. In the US, the Federal Trade Commission has taken legal action against clinics touting unproven treatments and is stepping up its activities against the marketing of Covid-19-related cell therapies. In recent months it has issued warning letters to several companies offering these, citing the lack of “competent and reliable scientific evidence” to support their claims.
Stem cells — whose ability to turn into many types of cell have made them the focus of intense scientific interest — are a favourite with clinic operators. The number of stem cell clinics in the US rose from two in 2009 to about 700 by 2017. Last September, Google barred adverts for “unproven or experimental medical techniques such as most stem cell therapy”.
“There have always been snake-oil salesmen who take advantage of needy families and patients, and that’s the case in cell therapy too,” says Kurt Gunter, strategic advisory council member of the International Society for Cell & Gene Therapy. “When you’ve got a deadly disease, every minute you are taking a bogus therapy takes away time from a treatment that’s proven. Then comes the drain on