British Columbia

'Science-ploitation': stem cells being used to market dubious therapies, prof says

Stem cell research can potentially lead to new treatments for all kinds of conditions — but right now, some experts are concerned “pop culture science” is racing ahead faster than research-based science.

From apple-cell face creams to blood cleansing, public is often misinformed about treatment: Timothy Caulfield

Stem cells are unspecified cells that have the potential to develop into different types of adult cells. (Anne-Christine Poujoulat/AFP/Getty)

Stem-cell research can potentially lead to new treatments for all kinds of conditions — but right now, some experts are concerned "pop culture science" is overtaking research-based science.

Timothy Caulfield, Canada research chair in health law and policy at the University of Alberta, says the term "stem cell" is being dubiously used by marketers to sell products.

The University of Alberta professor was in Vancouver this past week debunking myths in a talk titled "Twisted Messages, False Hope and Unproven Regenerative Therapies."

"Pop culture has embraced the term 'stem cells' and [some clinics] are using the genuine excitement around the science to market stuff that does not work," said Caulfield.

"The broader social phenomenon is what I call science-ploitation."

Caulfield is an "all-in believer" of stem cell research and a lot of progress has been made, he told Stephen Quinn, host of CBC's The Early Edition — but there is also a lot of false advertising. 

'Unproven therapies'

There are a handful of proven effective treatments like bone marrow transplants for cancer and therapies for some eye conditions and burns, Caulfield said, but what is being marketed goes far beyond that.

"Clinics all over the world are marketing unproven therapies, sometimes for really serious conditions and sometimes to kids, and other times for more frivolous things like anti-aging and for weight loss and breast augmentation," he said.

One time, he recalled, he watched someone spread apple stem cells on a patient's face as an anti-aging cream. Many of these kinds of treatments can cost hundreds of dollars.

"Save your money," Caulfield said.

The problem is not just that these therapies are unproven, but the public is often being misinformed.

"There is this idea that stem cells are good and so you inject them into your body and they work — that's not it at all," he said.

Media responsibility

Caulfield puts some of the responsibility on media coverage of these treatments.

"Think of all the athletes that go and get 'stem cell treatments,'" Caulfield said. "It's often reported in the sports pages and so there really isn't any scientific critique … People read that and it makes these clinics seem more legitimate."

It's also up to scientists and researchers to take care in how they present their work so that it is not misconstrued,  Caulfield added.

"Scientists need to be careful of how they talk about this stuff to make sure they are not hyping it and that they clearly explain the time frame we are talking about and how complex the science is," he said.

He emphasized it is an issue that needs to be addressed before it's too late.

"Once there is momentum around some of these treatments, it's hard to pull it back,"  Caulfield said. "This problem is just going to get worse."

With files from The Early Edition.