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.
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.
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.