Misinformation on stem cell treatments for COVID-19 linked to overrated science, researchers say

Researchers call for stricter regulations to deter sale of unproven cell-based products, and more responsible and accurate science communication

BUFFALO, NY – The global race to develop new stem cell-based COVID-19 treatments during the pandemic has been filled with violations of government regulations, inflated medical claims and distorted public communications, say authors from a new perspective published Oct. 14 in the journal Stem Cell Reports.

While stem cell therapy – using stem cells to promote regeneration, repair, or healing – can be used to treat a limited number of diseases and conditions, there is currently no clinically tested or approved cell therapy. government available for treatment or prevention of COVID-19 or its long-term effects.

However, this has not stopped the emergence of clinics offering unproven and dangerous ‘stem cell’ therapies that promise to prevent COVID-19 by strengthening the immune system or improving overall health, says lead author. Laertis Ikonomou, PhD, associate professor of oral biology in the University of Buffalo School of Dental Medicine.

The article explores the negative effects of disinformation about cell therapy on public health, as well as the roles researchers, science communicators and regulators should play in curbing the spread of inaccurate information and promoting responsible communication. and precise search results.

“Efforts to rapidly develop therapeutic interventions should never come at the expense of the ethical and scientific standards that are at the heart of responsible clinical research and innovation,” says Ikonomou.

“Scientists, regulators and policymakers must guard against the proliferation of ill-designed, undernourished and redundant studies that are launched with excessive haste due to the pandemic, but are unlikely to provide any evidence. compelling and clinically meaningful data on safety and efficacy, ”says co-author Leigh Turner, PhD, professor of health, society and behavior at the University of California, Irvine.

Other researchers include Megan Munsie, PhD, professor of ethics, education and policy in stem cell science at the University of Melbourne; and Aaron Levine, PhD, associate professor of public policy at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

Dangerous products linked to unproven claims

Many studies of possible COVID-19 stem cell treatments are at an early stage of investigation and further evaluation on larger samples is needed, says Munsie. However, the conclusions of preliminary studies are often exaggerated through press releases, social media and non-critical media reports.

“Given the urgency of the ongoing pandemic, even the smallest piece of COVID-19 science is often considered newsworthy and is quickly entering the social media landscape where – however accurate – it can be shared widely with a global audience, ”says Levine.

Clinics selling supposed stem cell treatments directly to consumers sometimes use these findings and reporting to exploit the fears of vulnerable patients by unethically advertising the unproven benefits of stem cell treatments to strengthen the immune system, regenerate lung tissue and prevent transmission. COVID-19, says Turner.

There are reports of patients suffering physical damage – including blindness and death – due to unproven stem cell therapies. Patients also suffer financially, Ikonomou says, as the price of products ranges from a few thousand to tens of thousands of dollars, and people are often encouraged to receive the expensive treatments every few months.

Patients who are made to believe they are protected from COVID-19 may decide not to be vaccinated, stop wearing masks, stop walking away, or otherwise avoid behaviors intended to promote personal safety and health public, explains Turner. They may also become less likely to participate in carefully designed clinical trials conducted by companies that uphold ethical standards.

“The premature commercialization of cell-based therapies will inevitably harm the field of regenerative medicine, increase risks to patients and erode public trust,” Ikonomou said.

Take stronger action

The United States Food and Drug Administration and Federal Trade Commission have issued warnings to many offending clinics, but many companies continue to make false claims.

The authors recommend that regulators consider implementing more stringent measures to deter the sale of unlicensed products, such as imposing fines or criminal charges, revoking medical licenses, or requiring clinics to return money to patients.

They also suggest that scientific and professional societies lobby regulatory bodies to strengthen enforcement of laws and regulations. Science communicators and journalists can fight disinformation by not engaging in hyperbolic coverage of research findings and by conveying the limitations of the study, say the authors.

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