The Rise of Phony Stem Cell COVID Treatments

SARS-CoV-2 virus. Source: Fusion Medical Animation on Unsplash

The global race to develop new stem cell-based COVID treatments during the pandemic was filled with violations of government regulations, inflated medical claims and distorted public communication, according to an article appearing in Stem Cell Reports.

While stem cell therapy has treatment applications for a limited range of diseases and conditions, at present no clinically tested or government-approved cell therapies are available for the treatment or prevention of COVID or long COVID.

Despite this, some clinics have started offering unproven and unsafe “stem cell” therapies that promise to prevent COVID by strengthening the immune system or improving overall health, according to lead author Laertis Ikonomou, PhD, associate professor of oral biology in the University at Buffalo School of Dental Medicine.

The article explores the negative effects that misinformation about cell therapies has on public health, as well as the roles that researchers, science communicators and regulatory agencies should play in curbing the spread of inaccurate information and in promoting responsible, accurate communication of research findings.

“Efforts to rapidly develop therapeutic interventions should never occur at the expense of the ethical and scientific standards that are at the heart of responsible clinical research and innovation,” said Prof Ikonomou.

Other investigators include Megan Munsie, PhD, professor of ethics, education and policy in stem cell science at the University of Melbourne; and 

Many of the studies on possible stem cell-based COVID treatments are at an early stage of investigation and further evaluation on larger sample sizes is required, says Munsie. However, the findings from preliminary studies are frequently exaggerated through press releases, social media and uncritical news media reports.

“Given the urgency of the ongoing pandemic, even the smallest morsel of COVID science is often deemed newsworthy and rapidly enters a social media landscape where—regardless of its accuracy – it can be widely shared with a global audience,” said Aaron Levine, PhD, associate professor of public policy at Georgia Institute of Technology..

Clinics selling such treatments sometimes use these findings and news reports to exploit the fears of vulnerable patients by unethically advertising unproven stem cell treatments benefits of boosting the immune system, regenerating lung tissue and preventing transmission of COVID, said co-author Leigh Turner, PhD, professor of health, society and behaviour at the University of California, Irvine.

Reportedly some harm to patients resulted from unproven stem cell therapies, including blindness and death. Patients suffer financially as well, said Prof Ikonomou, as the products range in price from a few thousand to tens of thousands of dollars, and people are often encouraged to receive the expensive treatments every few months.

Patients who COVID may decline vaccines, stop wearing masks and stop other COVID safety measures, Prof Turner warned. They may also be less likely to participate in ethically conducted clinical trials.

“The premature commercialisation of cell-based therapeutics will inevitably harm the field of regenerative medicine, increase risks to patients and erode the public’s trust,” said Prof Ikonomou.

Despite warnings, many offending companies continue to make false claims. The authors recommend that regulatory agencies consider implementing stronger measures.

They also suggest that scientific and professional societies lobby regulatory agencies to increase enforcement of laws and regulations. The authors recommended that science communicators and journalists can combat misinformation by not engaging in hyperbolic coverage of research results and conveying study limitations.

Source: University at Buffalo

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