New medical clinics are popping up around the world, offering patients "cures" for ailments ranging from autism to Alzheimer's disease. These clinics have one thing in common: They say their treatments are based on the latest advances in stem-cell research.
And that has a lot of stem-cell scientists worried. They fear patients are wasting money on therapies that are little more than a dose of hope and hype.
"The false claims and unscrupulous methods through which some clinics attract patients has quickly become one of the most important concerns facing the field today," said Drew Lyall, executive director of the Stem Cell Network based in Ottawa.
Mr. Lyall was a member of an international task force that this week released a report on unproven stem-cell treatments.
The task force, convened by the International Society for Stem Cell Research (ISSCR), concluded that the scientific community must take an active role in helping the public steer clear of rogue clinics that try to lure desperate patients through the Internet.
Many scientists have great hopes for stem cells because of their ability to turn into every single specialized cell that make up the human body. That means, in theory, that stem cells could be used to treat a variety of diseases and repair damaged organs. But the research still has a long way to go before doctors can offer sure-fire cures for a lot of complex illnesses, Mr. Lyall said.
The task force's report outlines criteria the public can use to evaluate whether a clinic's treatments are both safe and effective. In particular, the report says, a clinic should be approved by an internationally recognized national oversight body in its country of operation. It should also have an independent ethics board reviewing its procedures. And there should be some scientific basis for the therapies.
The ISSCR plans do its own assessment of various clinics and make that information publicly available on a website: closerlookatstemcells.org. Patients can also use the website to submit names of clinics that they want the ISSCR to evaluate.
Clinics that lack regulatory and ethical oversight, or fail to provide convincing evidence for their therapies, will be listed on the website.
Mr. Lyall said it will likely take about four months before the ISSCR is in a position to post names of dubious clinics. "The ISSCR is going to make the process as open as possible and give the clinics time to respond."