In The Field

AAAS 2010: Stem Cells, Quackery, Ratings

With stem cells the latest therapy to be abused by unscrupulous practitioners, a research society plans to help patients identify quackery. Come April, the International Society for Stem Cell Research is to launch a program to rate and approve stem cell therapy programs worldwide.


The concept was initiated by Irving Weissman, when the Stanford University researcher became president of the society last July. Weissman revealed the target date for the program’s inception in San Diego, just north of Tijuana, Mexico – the hemisphere’s historic epicenter for all forms of medical quackery, including stem cell offerings. Under current plans, Weissman says the system would work like this: A patient could contact the Deerfield, Illinois, based organization [isscr.org] about a stem cell therapy program. The Society would contact the therapy provider seeking answers to a series of queries that would be asked of all. These might include a scientific description of the therapy, a description of pre-clinical and clinical testing, peer-reviewed articles about the technique, and what institutional review board or agencies have approved the method. A panel of 20 t0 25 authorities then would review the material and render an opinion. The exact terminology has yet to be worked out, Weissman says, but those not meeting muster might win a designation of “unproven” or a more critical assessment. The society is looking for a pro bono attorney to advise them on practices. They also may require pro bono attorneys in the future to aid in defending the rating system if any criticized practitioner goes to court to block it or claim damages. A legal attack by a shady practitioner won’t be unexpected given the money involved in Mexican quackery. An international recruitment system has lured patients with poor prognoses, who then typically pay cash up front. They come for cancer treatments, dubious orthopedic injections, even sex-change surgery. Given this history, the ISSCR will have its work cut out for it.

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