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Exploiting science? A systematic analysis of complementary and alternative medicine clinic websites’ marketing of stem cell therapies
  1. Blake Murdoch1,
  2. Amy Zarzeczny2,
  3. Timothy Caulfield1
  1. 1 Faculty of Law, Health Law Institute, University of Alberta, Edmonton, Canada
  2. 2 Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy, University of Regina, Regina, Canada
  1. Correspondence to Timothy Caulfield; caulfield{at}ualberta.ca

Abstract

Objective To identify the frequency and qualitative characteristics of stem cell-related marketing claims made on websites of clinics featuring common types of complementary and alternative medicine practitioners. The involvement of complementary and alternative medicine practitioners in the marketing of stem cell therapies and stem cell-related interventions is understudied. This research explores the extent to which they are involved and collaborate with medical professionals. This knowledge will help with identifying and evaluating potential policy responses to this growing market.

Design Systematic website analysis.

Setting Global. US and English-language bias due to methodology.

Main outcome measures Representations made on clinic websites in relation to practitioner types, stem cell therapies and their targets, stem cell-related interventions. Statements about stem cell therapies relating to evidence of inefficacy, limited evidence of efficacy, general procedural risks, risks specific to the mode of therapy, regulatory status, experimental or unproven nature of therapy. Use of hype language (eg, language that exaggerates potential benefits).

Results 243 websites offered stem cell therapies. Many websites advertised stem cell transplantation from multiple sources, such as adipose-derived (112), bone marrow-derived (100), blood-derived (28), umbilical cord-derived (26) and others. Plant stem cell-based treatments and products (20) were also advertised. Purposes for and targets of treatment included pain, physical injury, a wide range of diseases and illnesses, cosmetic concerns, non-cosmetic ageing, sexual enhancement and others. Medical doctors (130), chiropractors (53) and naturopaths (44) commonly work in the clinics we found to be offering stem cell therapies. Few clinic websites advertising stem cell therapies included important additional information, including statements about evidence of inefficacy (present on only 12.76% of websites), statements about limited evidence of efficacy (18.93%), statements of general risks (24.69%), statements of risks specific to the mode(s) of therapy (5.76%), statements as to the regulatory status of the therapies (30.86%) and statements that the therapy is experimental or unproven (33.33%). Hype language was noted (31.69%).

Conclusions Stem cell therapies and related interventions are marketed for a wide breadth of conditions and are being offered by complementary and alternative practitioners, often in conjunction with medical doctors. Consumer protection and truth-in-advertising regulation could play important roles in addressing misleading marketing practices in this area.

  • stem cells
  • complementary medicine
  • marketing

This is an Open Access article distributed in accordance with the Creative Commons Attribution Non Commercial (CC BY-NC 4.0) license, which permits others to distribute, remix, adapt, build upon this work non-commercially, and license their derivative works on different terms, provided the original work is properly cited and the use is non-commercial. See: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/4.0/

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Footnotes

  • Contributors All authors designed the study, analysed the data and wrote the article.

  • Funding This work was supported by the Stem Cell Network, grant number FY17/PP1 RES0032389, and the Trudeau Foundation, grant number RES0019335.

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Patient consent Not applicable.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

  • Data sharing statement Original data set and time-stamped screenshots of all example statements found in the tables are available upon request to the corresponding author.

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