Scientists have long accused these clinics of using promises without scientific support to attract patients. The FDA wants these clinics to test their therapies with rigorous clinical trials and federal court approval. But these clinics continue to promote unsafe surgery. Experts say this puts vulnerable patients in trouble. Now that Google has begun to think about it, it will only get harder to turn to patients who claim to be suspicious.
Usually, before new treatments can be widely available, clinical trials must be conducted to test their effectiveness. These scientific studies determine the safety and effectiveness of treatment, thereby eliminating dangerous treatments. External researchers and regulators closely monitor the results to maintain scientific integrity. The only stem cell procedure currently approved by the FDA after clinical trials involves the use of specific cells from bone marrow or cord blood for the treatment of bone marrow and blood cancer. Google still allows advertisements to recruit patients for clinical trials in the United States.
The "rogue" stem cell clinic bypassing the regulatory process is not uncommon. Hundreds of doctors across the United States are happy to see patients with chronic pain, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson's disease and other difficult diseases, as other doctors and scientists call modern "panaceas." They told patients that injecting stem cells into the problem area - whether it's joints, veins or eyes - was their "safest" or "best" option. But generally, they do not provide scientific evidence to support these claims and rarely accept insurance. Unlike most US FDA-approved clinical trials, patients typically pay $10,000- $20,000 for treatment.
"It's heartbreaking. It's outrageous, "said Jeremy Snyder, a professor at Simon Fraser University who studies medical development for vulnerable patients. Leigh Turner, a bioethicist at the University of Minnesota, recalls his first letter to the FDA seven years ago, confident that he encouraged the FDA to investigate what he called the "expansion model" market.
Turner was shocked by the fact that doctors are putting patients at risk through clinically unproven stem cell therapy, on the grounds that it clearly conflicts with FDA regulations. Severe infections, benign tumors and blindness occurred in some patients after treatment. The FDA has increased its focus on "rogue" clinics: before initiating legal action, new regulations are first prepared, followed by severely worded letters, which are appealed to the court to say that these therapies must first pass clinical trials. Although many of them eventually succeeded, the slow legal struggle has not shut down these expanding businesses.
According to Gayathri Sivakumar, a health communication researcher at Colorado State University, who worked on Google's Indian advertising and policy team, patients with chronic illness often rely on the Internet for health information. "Advertisers get what they want... It's a good way for Google to make money," she said.
Google and Bing advertisements allow clinics to sell directly to patients seeking help. Even searching for phrases such as "the best alternative therapy for paralysis" can lead to unsubstantiated and potentially dangerous advertisements for stem cell therapies. Marketing agencies often use advertisements on Google and Facebook to direct patients to uncontrolled clinics without strong evidence. Desperate and sick patients follow these advertisements in the hope of getting answers.
On September 6, the Washington Post reported that Google would no longer advertise dangerous "unproven or experimental medical technologies". According to Google, consumer-oriented stem cells and cell-based therapy and gene therapy "can lead to dangerous health outcomes, and we don't think they have any place on our platform." The policy will be launched in October.
Google has previously announced that it will ban misleading advertising. In May, for example, Google announced that it would eliminate misleading advertisements in anti-abortion clinics. Experts say the latest move is important in view of Google's huge influence in the field of Internet advertising. "That's good news," Snyder said, adding that these clinics "have a big responsibility".
Asked about Google's ban, Turner said, "It looks very comprehensive." He was particularly pleased that his policy did not attempt to differentiate clinics based on the potential risks of treating the diseases they claimed to cure. Google has confirmed that the policy does not differentiate between different types of unsubstantiated therapies.
"When I first heard about it, I was very surprised," says Paul Knoepfler, a stem cell biologist at the University of California, Davis. Knoepfler has been focusing on this industry for many years. "I also hope that stem cell clinics will fight back. They will try to adapt.
These experts agree that Google's actions set a good example. Snyder wants to see other technology companies follow suit, and Turner believes that state medical boards should consider punishing doctors who put patients at risk.
Sivakumar argues that "this is not a complete solution," she says. "But it can reduce the negative impact in the short term until they find another way to use people."