Stem cells from cattle, placentas, and fat are used in clinics across the US

(credit: Abraxas3d)

Topping the list of predatory business schemes, direct-to-consumer clinics peddling unproven stem cell therapies may be right up there with payday loans and Shkreli-esque drug pricing. Such clinics can tout dangerous, often exorbitantly priced “treatments.” They frequently target the vulnerable and desperate, including terminal cancer patients, parents of autistic children, and grown children of parents with Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease. And the results can range from placebos to bones in eyelids and scary growths on spinal cords.

We tend to think this kind of quackery only thrives in countries with lax regulations like China, India, or Mexico. The phrase “stem cell tourism” usually evokes a plane trip. But stem cell therapies are unexpectedly flourishing in the US and may only require a short car trip.

In an analysis published this week in Cell Stem Cell, researchers identified a startling 351 businesses, encompassing 570 clinics across the US, that offer stem cell therapies largely unproven and unapproved by the Food and Drug Administration. Without peer-reviewed evidence, these businesses and clinics claim their therapies can treat dozens of diseases, injuries, and cosmetic indications, including joint pain, autism, spinal cord injuries, muscular dystrophy, and breast augmentation. Costs can reach into tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars for treatments.

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