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Stem Cell Clinics and Their Dirty Secrets

Stem cell treatments are still in the experimental stage, with a lot more advanced research required before treatments make it into the mainstream. However, that hasn’t stopped American “stem-cell tourists” from traveling to unregulated clinics in Mexico, the Caribbean, and China searching for stem-cell treatments for just about anything, from heart treatments to facelifts.

Now, in a study published in the journal Cell Stem Cell, researchers have found a total of 351 U.S. businesses offering unapproved stem cell treatments. There are at least 570 American-based clinics offering experimental stem cell-based medical procedures within the United States.

Most of the treatments were marketed directly to customers, praying on those who are desperately seeking help for a terminal illness. This kind of marketing is against federal regulations; however, it appears to be happening on a regular basis. In the paper, the authors wrote:

Paul Knoepfler, a professor of cell biology and human anatomy at UC Davis, an associate investigator at the Institute for Pediatric Regenerative Medicine at Shriners Hospital for Children Northern California, and author of the study, said in a statement:

Researcher and co-author Leigh Turner, from the University of Minnesota’s Center for Bioethics, said how he was surprised that these clinics have been operating, since they are unproven and unapproved by federal regulators.

He added that most concerning is that this may be causing serious harm to patients. In the U.S., people have a misconception that everything is regulated; however, there are a lot of clinics that are unregulated.

Many of the websites intentionally blur the differences between approved, evidence-based scientific practices and quack procedures. Because so much has been written about stem cell research, it would not be hard to convince the general public that these treatments work.

The websites of these clinics sometimes link to published medical studies showing therapies to look legitimate. Turner said in the statement:

Researchers have been studying stem cells for some time now, looking at their ability to repair damaged tissues. However, they have only achieved limited success. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has only approved a few stem-cell treatments, with treatments for most conditions still largely unproven. On the FDA website it states:

The researchers also found that not only were cosmetic surgeons and naturopaths offering the unapproved stem cell interventions, but the “pioneers” were also training others to do the same. It is not clearly understood whether the FDA and state medical boards have been asleep at the wheel, or why they seem to be taking only minimal actions. Turner said:

One in five clinics was found to be marketing treatments with stem cells that were derived from other people. Two clinics even offer “bovine amniotic cells” to patients (cells derived from the amniotic fluid of cows). There is also no way of finding out if these clinics are even providing stem cells, let alone whether they are effective.

Often, the clinics claim it is a clinical trial; however, in reality, it is a for-profit center that is conducting experimental procedures. If it was a clinical trial, then the patient would most often get paid, not the clinics.


Stem cells are primitive cells that can be guided into becoming nearly any type of cell, such as a nerve cell, skin cell, or red blood cell. This in turn could help to repair parts of the body that have suffered from injury or disease.

It is also important to point out that even if real stem cells are being used, there are still dangers involved. Stem cells have been known to increase in size and cause tumors.

The researchers cited a case where a stroke patient had traveled to China, Argentina, and Mexico. He had spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on different stem cell treatments, resulting in only a painful growth on his spine.

In the paper, the authors make it clear what major problems exist:

What most patients do not understand is, by having unapproved and unproven stem cell interventions, it decreases their chances of qualifying for FDA-cleared and institutional review board-approved clinical trials that comply with federal regulations. The FDA wrote that it was:

The study authors have not accused the clinics of illegal operations; they have simply called for federal officials to step in and address the oversight. The researchers believe that additional discussions into the ethical, legal, and medical ramifications of these clinics need to be conducted.

There is no doubt that stem cells and stem cell research may provide greater understanding in diseases and new therapies. However, what these clinics are offering is a completely different case.

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Troy Oakes
Troy was born and raised in Australia and has always wanted to know why and how things work, which led him to his love for science. He is a professional photographer and enjoys taking pictures of Australia's beautiful landscapes. He is also a professional storm chaser where he currently lives in Hervey Bay, Australia.

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