Stem cell scientists seek to shed snake oil image

The Google webpage advertisement for the X-Cell Centre in Cologne, Germany says “Fight your degenerative disease now! Unique European clinic in Germany!” The site YoungerYounger offers “Be 20 yrs younger & more healthy with natural Swiss Cell Therapy.” Advertisements like these abound on the internet, even on the fringes of the webpages of otherwise reputable sites. And patients respond. Many patients with spinal cord injuries and degenerative diseases have travelled to India, China, Belize, the Ukraine and elsewhere in search of cures or at least relief from their disability.

This drives the International Society for Stem Cell Research, the field’s peak body, nuts. "They are basically selling the snake oil that we have seen for centuries," says Dr George Daly, a Harvard research who is the president of the ISSCR

“Not only does the use of untested therapies put patients at risk, it jeopardizes the legitimate practice of all translational stem cell research,” Daly complains. Hence, the society is countering misleading claims with a set of guidelines for researchers and the public which will help to preserve the reputation of the field. "With all the hype there is a risk that patients who are desperate will misunderstand the true level of advancement," Daley said. "They will assume that the cures are already here today or just around the corner."

The guidelines include recommendations for ethical oversight, peer review of research, informed consent and protection of volunteers. They will be based on existing documents drawn up by the US Food and Drug Administration and various European regulators. Hopefully the guidelines will be useful not only for warning patients away from the stem cell underground but for disciplining the ISCCR’s own members. The biggest scientific fraud in history was perpetrated by prominent Korean stem cell scientist Hwang Woo-suk. In an article still on the ISSCR website, several scientists rhapsodised about one of his fraudulent papers that “The impact of this work cannot be overstated... It represents a major step forward towards the reality of using human embryonic stem cells in the clinic.” ~  Reuters, June 12

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