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Australia Targeted by Under-regulated Stem Cell Clinics

Australia has one of the highest number of clinics engaging in direct-to-consumer marketing of stem cell therapies, according to the largest-ever study of an “under-regulated industry”.

The study, published in Cell Stem Cell, reveals murky marketing practices and dubious claims from 417 unique websites advertising stem cell-based therapies. “In the early days of this under-regulated industry, clinics were typically located in developing economies, where weak laws or lax enforcement enabled these businesses to operate with relative impunity,” says the study’s senior author, Prof John Rasko of The University of Sydney.

Previously it was thought that stem cell tourism was predominately being promoted online from countries in South-East Asia, Russia and eastern Europe. “More recently, richer countries such as Australia, Germany, Italy, Japan and the United States have seen clinics take advantage of real or imagined gaps in regulation.”

Stem cell experts have long called for the closure of loopholes that allow doctors to administer costly, unproven and potentially dangerous stem cell therapies in Australia. “The loophole applies to stem cells taken from one’s own body for use in autologous stem cell transplants. The Medical Council of NSW, Australian Academy of Science and the National Health and Medical Research Council proposed much stronger regulations, but the Therapeutic Goods Association has still not made a decision.”

The study reveals that 83% of the websites offered adult stem cells, followed by stem cells of unspecified type (13%). The remainder offered embryonic, induced pluripotent or foetal stem cells or amniotic stem cells. About half of the sites didn’t indicate the donor source of cells.

The websites were frequently imprecise about the medical conditions for which they offered interventions, and used inconsistent terminology or categories of diseases across sites.

The websites most commonly targeted anti-ageing and skin care applications (47%), indicating that marketing was pitched at lifestyle or aesthetic concerns rather than medical issues. The clinics typically made claims without supporting evidence from randomised, controlled, independent clinical trials, and lacked market authorisation from a regulatory authority.

While Australia ranked fifth among advanced economies with 19 clinics, on a per capita basis it was only behind Ireland and Singapore.