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Dangerous Science: Online Promotion of Unproven Stem Cell Therapies and Global Health Risks

Stem cell-based therapies represent a potential pathway for a new era of 21st century regenerative medicine. In support of this new form of treatment, a global multibillion-dollar research endeavor is currently underway in an effort to establish a scientific evidence base for safe and effective clinical use of stem cells. At present, due to its early stages, only a few stem cell therapies are approved for use. Yet despite very limited evidence-based data, a proliferation of questionable and often illegal stem cell providers around the world are now offering unfettered access to largely experimental stem cell treatment claiming cures for virtually any disease or condition. These stem cell clinics promote their services globally to patients using unregulated Internet and forms of direct-to-consumer advertising. In this paper we examine marketing characteristics of these questionable stem cell clinics and discuss pathways of access through the globalization of medical tourism. We conclude with an examination of the similarities between unproven stem cell therapy access and illicit online pharmacies and explore possible lessons that can be learned to inform future global regulation and policymaking in this arena.