Health Care

Google will stop selling ads for untested stem cell therapies

Google will no longer sell ads for unproven or experimental medical therapies, including stem cell treatments, The Washington Post reported.

The new policy deals a blow to the widely unregulated industry of stem cell clinics, which medical researchers and bioethics experts claim are peddling unproven, sometimes dangerous treatments for everything from mild arthritis to erectile dysfunction to multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease.

“I think it’s a very meaningful step in not allowing these frivolous ads,” said Sunil Abhyankar, the director of the Midwest Stem Cell Therapy Center at the University of Kansas Medical Center. “Those kinds of ads can easily sway people’s opinions about the benefits of these therapies, and many of them are unproven.”

While Abhyankar said stem cells hold great promise, he says unregulated clinics threaten the credibility of the entire stem cell research field. And consumer advertising is a powerful motivator.

Unlike prescription drugs — which require clinical trials and a physician’s OK — stem cell clinics can lure patients with advertising alone.

“I think most people start online searching for things,” Abhyankar said. “I hope others follow what Google is doing.”

The Kansas City Star detailed several alleged victims of unregulated stem cell clinics in a story on Aug. 18.

Those included retired University of Missouri-Kansas City professor Elizabeth Noble, who traveled to the the U.S. Stem Cell Clinic in Sunrise, Florida, in search of a miracle cure for macular degeneration.

She says she paid $5,000 for clinic staff to withdraw fat from her abdomen, extract stem cells from it and then inject a mixture of the cells and her blood plasma into both eyes.

But three days later, she suffered severe pressure and bleeding in her eyes, according to a lawsuit she filed. Doctors found her retinas were badly damaged. In the months that followed, both retinas would atrophy, and one would detach, leaving her unable to see any light in either eye.

Noble’s lawyer could not be immediately reached for comment on Friday.

In a follow-up story, The Star wrote about another Kansas City woman who sued an Overland Park chiropractic clinic, saying she suffered a severe infection after receiving an unapproved stem cell treatment there. The suit alleges she was harmed by umbilical cord products tainted with E. coli, sold by Liveyon, a Nevada-based stem cell distributor. Several Kansas City area stem cell clinics use or have used stem cell tissue from Liveyon.

The Centers for Disease Control linked several hospitalizations across the nation to products sold by Liveyon, a California-based distributor of stem cells from umbilical cord blood. Liveyon officials have blamed the contamination on a supplier.

The Star story also found that local clinic representatives routinely overstate the evidence for their treatments for all sorts of maladies and downplay the risks at informational seminars hosted across the metro.

Clinic owners maintain they’re offering a valuable alternative to surgery and opioids. They say they have helped hundreds of people and have the patient testimonials to prove it.

But researchers say that without controlled studies that compare those treatments to placebos, the testimonials are almost meaningless scientifically.

Google announced its change on Friday after seeing a rising number of “bad actors” in the space. It will no longer sell advertising to those offering therapies with “no established biomedical or scientific basis,” the Post reported. That includes most stem cell therapies, cellular therapies and gene therapies.

Related stories from Kansas City Star