Dangerous results from unproven stem cell treatments led to a Google advertising ban

Acting to prevent clinics from misleading patients, Google announced on Friday that it will ban advertisements for "unproven or experimental" medical procedures.

For several years the Food and Drug Administration has started tackling clinics that offer unproven and unsafe "stem cell therapy". Scientists have a long time convicted these clinics to attract patients with promises that are not supported by science. The FDA wants these clinics to test their procedures like any new treatment, in strict clinical trials, and federal courts have been agreed. But these clinics continue to market unsafe procedures. Experts say this has put vulnerable patients in trouble, exposing them to vague sellers who offer hope for thousands of dollars. Which Google has weighed, caring for patients with dubious claims has become a lot harder.

Normally a new treatment, before it is widely available, must be tested by clinical trials to test if it is effective. These scientific studies determine how safe and effective the treatment is, so that guys and dangerous treatments can be left behind. The results are closely monitored by external researchers and regulators to maintain scientific integrity. The only stem cell procedures that have undergone the clinical trial process and are currently approved by the FDA concern the use of specific cells from bone marrow or cord blood to treat bone marrow and blood cancer. Google still allows ads recruiting patients for sanctioned clinical trials in the US.

Rogue stem cell clinics, which bypass the regulatory process, are not new. Hundreds of doctors across the country are happy to accept payment for what other doctors and scientists say it is modern snake oil that sees patients with chronic pain, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson's and other hard-to-treat diseases. They tell patients that injecting stem cells into problem areas – whether it's a joint, vein or eye – is their "safest" or "best" option. But often they do not provide scientific evidence to support these claims and rarely accept insurance. Unlike most FDA-approved clinical trials, patients pay out of pocket and in the front, who often spend between $ 10,000 and $ 20,000 on treatments.


"It's heartbreaking. It's furious," says Jeremy Snyder, a professor at Simon Fraser University who studies the medical exploitation of vulnerable patients.

Leigh Turner, a bioethicist at the University of Minnesota, remembers that he wrote his first letter to the FDA more than seven years ago, thereby encouraging what he describes as a marketplace in & # 39; expansion mode & # 39 ;.

Turner was shocked at the way doctors endangered patients with clinically unproven use of patient's cells, citing clear conflicts with FDA regulations. Stories later revealed that patients were harmed by stem cell procedures. Patients have suffered serious infections, benign tumorsand blindness after their treatments. The FDA focused more on rogue clinics: first write new rules, then hard-formulated letters, before proceeding to legal action. Go to court to claim that these procedures must pass clinical trials. But slowly moving legal battles, although many of them are ultimately successful, these growing companies have still not closed. And tech companies have encouraged that expansion from the start.

According to Gayathri Sivakumar, a health communication researcher at Colorado State University, who previously worked for Google's advertising and policy teams in India, chronically ill patients are often dependent on the internet for health information. "Advertisers get what they want … and for Google it's a good way to make money," she says.

With Google and Bing ads, clinics can be marketed directly for patients seeking help. Even the search for expressions such as "best alternative treatment for paralysis" yields advertisements for unproven and potentially dangerous stem cell therapies. Marketing agencies use routinely Google and Facebook lead patients to unregulated clinics that operate without robust evidence. Desperate and sick patients follow these ads in the hope of answers and make clinics – and Google – richer in the process.


On September 6 The Washington Post reported Google plans to withdraw and prevent ads from stem cell clinics.

According to Google, direct-to-consumer stem cells and cell-based treatments and gene therapies "can lead to dangerous health outcomes and we feel they have no place on our platforms." The policy will go live in October.

Google is no stranger to banning advertisements for predatory companies. Last year, Google banned advertisements for addiction care centers after one Verge Report found that the ads have benefited from people with misleading marketing. In May, Google announced that it would eliminate misleading advertisements for anti-abortion clinics.

Experts say that this last step is important given the huge size of Google in the online advertising space. "This is fantastic news," says Snyder. Although he says that Google should be welcomed, he adds that it is "heavily responsible" for supporting these clinics in the first place.

Asked about Google's ban, Turner says that "it seems pretty extensive." He was particularly pleased that the policy was not trying to distinguish clinics based on the potential risk of treating the conditions they claim to cure. Some conditions, such as joint complaints, are less risky to treat than things such as neurological conditions. If Google tried to differentiate between the two, Turner thinks it would loop through his policy. Google has confirmed that the policy does not distinguish between different types of unproven applications.


"I was pleasantly surprised when I first heard about it," says Paul Knoepfler, a stem cell biologist at the University of California at Davis. Knoepfler has been following this industry for years in academic journals and beyond his blog. “I also expect the stem cell clinics to fight back. They will try to adjust. & # 39;

These experts agree that Google's move is a good example. They also agree that vulnerable patients are not yet free. Snyder wants other technology companies to follow this example, and Turner believes that state medical councils should consider disciplinary action against doctors endangering patients.

Sivakumar echoed this mix of approval and caution. "Is it a complete solution? Not really, & she says. "But it can reduce the negative effects for a short time until they find another way to exploit people."