Research Gone Wild: Stem Cell Therapies: Hope or Hype?

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Online marketing of stem-cell interventions is exploding, but the FDA has not determined that they’re safe or effective for treating any ailment.

By Michael Fitzgerald


Cristiano Ronaldo poses in front of a television camera on November 19th, 2016. (Photo: Gerard Julien/AFP/Getty Images)

What They’re Saying

Peyton Manning. Usain Bolt. Cristiano Ronaldo. What do they have in common besides world-class athletic abilities? They’ve all reportedly visited doctors who practice unproven stem-cell treatments for disease and injury. Dozens of other high-profile jocks, including the Olympic swimmer Jason Lezak and the tennis great Boris Becker, made news this year for attending or promoting stem-cell therapy facilities.


A version of this story first appeared in the

November/December 2016 issue

of Pacific Standard.

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Who Else Is Promoting Stem Cells?

Not just injured professional athletes and the journalists who credulously cover their exotic recovery regimes. According to a study in the August issue of the peer-reviewed research journal Cell Stem Cell, online marketing of stem-cell interventions is exploding in developed countries including the United States, Germany, and Australia. Hundreds of websites offering anti-aging, diabetes, and sports-injury treatments are making “broad, imprecise therapeutic claims and frequently [failing] to detail procedures,” write the authors. Global revenue from treatments is expected to hit $4.5 billion by 2020, according to a 2015 report from the market-research firm Grand View Research, and more than a hundred stem-cell clinics have opened across America in recent years.

The Problem With That

Most American facilities are offering a therapy that uses “stromal vascular fraction,” because these fat cells are relatively easy to acquire. The technique is being used to treat everything from hair loss to heart failure to Parkinson’s disease — even though the Food and Drug Administration has not determined that the method is safe or effective for treating any ailment. Stem-cell medicine is barely over a decade old, and the FDA regulates it under a less stringent set of rules than the typical pill-encapsulated synthetic medicine. Buyer beware.