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Google took an important step this month toward restricting the reach of one breed of 21st-century snake oil purveyor: those selling stem cell treatments. Others need to follow its lead.

More than 600 clinics in the U.S. and many more around the world have co-opted the potential of using stem cell treatments to cure a range of medical conditions and now sell these treatments directly to the public despite a lack of evidence that they work as promised.

Thousands of people have paid for these treatments and received nothing in return or, in some cases, have been seriously harmed or even died. While the FDA and other regulators are increasingly taking action against some of the worst of these businesses, these actions have been slow and the marketplace for unproven stem cell treatments continues to grow.

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Snake oil salesmen and exploitative medical practitioners are hardly new. But with online advertising, social media, and crowdfunding, they are reaching an ever-enlarging audience. In response to criticism of its role in hosting advertisements for such companies, Google announced this month it would “prohibit advertising for unproven or experimental medical techniques such as most stem cell therapy, cellular (non-stem) therapy, and gene therapy.” This is an important step in combating companies selling unproven therapies such as stem cell treatments because they use these advertisements to reach potential customers, often couched in misleading language about the safety and effectiveness of these treatments.

I applaud Google’s move to ensure that it is less complicit in exploiting the hopes of seriously ill users. But Google alone can’t stop this problem. Even if it could successfully eliminate ads by problematic actors on its services, including YouTube, these companies can turn to other advertising providers to reach the public. They will still be able to represent their brands on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and the like, and will appear in search results on Google and other search engines, taking users to websites that are often filled with emotionally gripping testimonials that are light on facts — or even distort them. While some platforms have banned companies and groups that spread misinformation via their services, they should be pressured to follow Google’s lead and cease promoting unproven treatments that potentially exploit the public.

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In addition to addressing direct-to-consumer advertisements, more needs to be done to restrict financing for companies offering stem cell treatments and other unproven therapies. Since public and private insurers will not pay for unproven medical treatments — the occasional exception being legitimate clinical trials designed to determine the safety and effectiveness of experimental treatments — many people interested in pursuing stem cell and other unproven treatments choose to drain their savings or increasingly turn to crowdfunding to pay for them.

GoFundMe, the dominant crowdfunding platform for medical purposes, could follow Google’s lead and prohibit fundraising for unproven medical treatments. In addition to stepping away from being complicit in enabling these companies to flourish, this would prevent crowdfunding campaigns from being used as a vast source of misleading claims about the safety and efficacy of these treatments.

Instead, GoFundMe has chosen not to create a policy of prohibiting such campaigns, but will ban them only if they are “either illegal, prohibited, or enjoined by an applicable regulatory body” or “have been found by an applicable regulatory body to cause consumer harm.” This puts the onus on regulators like the FDA to take actions against these companies.

While the FDA can and should be doing more to crack down on businesses selling stem cell treatments and other unproven therapies to the public, companies like GoFundMe and Google know they are being used to exploit their users. The difference is that Google has seen fit to take some action to address this, while other tech companies generally have not.

Without a more united front by tech companies to stop aiding companies that exploit the hopes of people who are desperately ill, then this corruption of science will continue. Even a company as large and powerful as Google can’t fix this problem alone. If the major tech companies can’t unite to find a solution and continue to profit from this abuse, then there will be increasing need for the government to more actively force the issue for them.

Jeremy Snyder, Ph.D., is a professor in the Faculty of Health Sciences at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, Canada.

  • Good article but you do not mention biohacking, which has a very broad definition and has also been banned.
    Additionally uses of PRP in Aesthetics have been hit alongside the more serious medical treatments.

  • PRP for hair rejuvenation has been proven by years to work to restore hair with countless successful treatments and HUGE amounts of before and after images on the web. Yet Google banned PRP for Hair which is just nonsense and it will push people to use unsafe chemicals and surgery. What a shame.

  • All media should be opposing all forms of censorship by tech giants. The authoritarian moves by Google and the social media juggernauts should open them up to massive lawsuits as they prove themselves to be publishers, not open platforms. Any media outlet promoting censorship is seen as highly suspect, even from an opinion piece.

  • I’m sorry to say that this is just another example of the “System” protecting their turf (and their revenue stream) at the expense of the American people. We all understand that any treatment should be researched and controlled by “responsible” agencies to ensure the wellbeing of those being treated. But to stop the promotion by professional and responsible medical professionals of treatments that have changed the lives of thousands is irresponsible and it is self-serving for the “establishment” to maintain their control of the medical “industry” at the expense of people getting proper medical treatment. Shame on you Google!!!

    • It’s honestly worse than that. I run Google Ads for a number of medical practices. If there is any page on their website that has the words “stem cell therapy” in it, Google is now blanket banning ANY ads from that website. For instance an ad on “podiatrist near me” that has no mention of stem cells is being blocked under this rule. It does not matter that the words are not on the landing page or ad. I spoke on the phone with Google this week and I was assured the only way to make sure that I don’t run afoul of their crawlers blocking every single Ad I make is to tell a team of 40+ MDs that Google says they can’t have the words “stem cell” anywhere on their website. So this ban is not just impacting ads about stem cells, it’s preventing MDs from writing any type of content about stem cells on their website or else they will not be able to run any ads on Google.

  • remarkavly irresponsible and careless hyperbole. you are the one who deserves censorship mr snyder. try doing a literature review on stem cells. im assuming you know how.

  • They have not started stopping ads or searches so far. There are way to many fake promotions of not live and not FDA approved treatments still available

  • I was diagnosed with Progressive Systemic Scleroderma around 2009 – 2010. I had a stem cell transplant, 2/22/2011, at Chicago that saved my life. The trans. stopped the progression of the Sys.
    Scleroderma. I was 62 yrs. young then, I am now 71, I would not be here today without that transplant. They were my own stem cells.

    • What google and this policy is actually doing is a broad sweeping ban of all topics natural, integrative, holistic, patient-centered, nutrition, lifestyle medicine based. I know this because our nonprofit – has been the recipient of this poorly written policy – not sure what exactly the algorithm bans – but it is way beyond just “stem cell” and clearly beyond medical clinics doing specific therapies they list in the policy. It is also targeting any organizations that educate about topics of integrative medicine. Interesting seeing that integrative medicine is now a board certified medical speciality. How can you ban ads on whole professions that have legal status to practice in the USA? That is what this policy is now restricting – knowledge about how we better take care of ourselves – eat healthy and learn about the tools we have to do that. Dig deeper before you applaud a policy that will restrict the average American and conventional MDs from learning about integrative and preventative approaches. So while the health of our nation continues to rank well below so many nations, lets make sure we can’t get educated on how to change that – at least not through google at least.

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