Over the last couple of years we have seen a large number of bogus stem cell clinics popping up marketing unproven, expensive and potentially dangerous “stem cell treatments” to people in desperate situations – after all, few groups of people are more vulnerable to fleecing than people with serious medical conditions or their loved ones, especially those for whom evidence-based and reality-based treatments leave poor long-term prognoses. Scammers offer hope, often under the “experimental treatment” label, and when they “don’t offer any guarantees”, it just makes them seem even more trustworthy – as well as freeing them from immediate legal troubles. And fair enough: some of the stem cell merchants probably genuinely believes they can help. They can even offer anecdotes that seem to support what they have to offer from people who have recently undergone treatment – as long as they don’t wait too long to record the words of praise, of course. And the market has long been more or less completely unregulated.
Some of the clinics selling dubious “stem cell”-related “cures” aren’t even run by real doctors. The Docere Clinics in Park City, Utah, for instance, markets stem cell therapies offered by naturopaths, in particular naturopath Harry Adelson, ND (i.e. “not a doctor”). The clinic claims to treat a range of musculoskeletal pain syndromes – none for which stem cell therapies have actually been shown to work, but including plenty of conditions associated with chronic pain, which are of course famously susceptible to placebo effects. Adelson has no actual, serious evidence to support the treatments he offers – rather, his specialty (or one of them) seems to be injecting “stem cells” of somewhat unclear origin into cervical discs in the hope that they will magically rejuvenate them. Instead of evidence, you’ll be able to find plenty of videos of Adelson cosplaying a real doctor, as well TEDX talks where he offers anecdotes and explains how he learned the tricks of the stem-cell trade from dubious clinics in places where regulations on health care are less strict. He does, however, also have his own unrandomized, highly dubious clinical “trial” that might look like an instance of real research only if you don’t know how real trials actually work. There is a good critique of Adelson’s and his pretend research here.
Adelson and the Docere clinic are not alone in this business, of course. In Phoenix, for instance, non-doctors Timothy Pierce, Jaime Ewald and Julie Keiffer at the Stem Cell Rejuvenation Center offer to use stem cells for autism, Lou Gehrig’s disease, cerebral palsy, degenerative disc disease, heart disease, muscular dystrophy, Parkinson’s disease, stroke, spinal cord injuries and erectile dysfunction, starting at $7,100 (2017). Evidence for safety and efficacy are for the narrow-minded. Meanwhile, the Global Health Stem Cell & IV Therapy, run by naturopaths Jason Porter and Julie Keiffer (again) – Arizona has notoriously few regulations on the practice of quacks, largely due, it seems, to the efforts of grand master quack Andrew Weil – offerw similar treatments, though it does at least also provide what is basically a large Quack Miranda Warning in lieu of anything resembling convincing evidence for safety and efficacy. Now, many naturopaths like to proclaim the glories of “natural medicine”, and you might wonder in virtue of what the stem cell treatments these people are marketing qualify as “natural”. The answer, of course, is that “natural” seems to mean whatever you want it to mean as long as there is money in it. And yes: you should be afraid.
There is a very good review of naturopathic forays into stem cell quackery here.
Diagnosis: Adelson doesn’t seem like a loon. Not in any way. Indeed, Adelson is pretty good at pretending to be a real medical practitioner for marketing purposes. And of course: that’s what makes him dangerous. Stay well away.
Hat-tip: Respectful Insolence