Nearly half of the top websites on stem cell therapy returned by Google are from treatment centres offering such therapy, despite the fact that this treatment is still largely in the domain of clinical trials.
Professor Pietro Ghezzi, RM Phillips Chair in Experimental Medicine at BSMS, conducted a study that found that 44% of the top 200 websites returned from searching on Google were for treatment centres offering stem cell therapy, while 22% were for news outlets (eg TV, magazines, newspapers).
“Although there is much hope that research on stem cells will lead to new therapies for many diseases, in most cases, the efficacy of stem cell therapy is still being tested clinically. Therefore it was surprising to find so many websites offering clinical treatment. Also surprising was the fact that while the news shows an interest in the use of stem cells to cure neurological diseases, existing treatment centres offer, above all, treatment for joints, sport injury or arthritis – all indications for which the efficacy of stem cells have not been completely demonstrated yet,” said Professor Ghezzi.
Articles in the news often mention the issue of “stem cell tourism”: because stem cell therapy is not approved for those indications in the US or the UK, patients may go to countries where medicine is less strictly regulated to get this type of treatment. However, of the many treatment centres with a website in English retrieved by Google.com, the majority (65%) of them are located in the US and none in the UK or Western Europe (bearing in mind our project only analysed websites in English).
Another interesting finding was that none of the treatment centres’ websites reports using stem cells from human embryos, a controversial issue, and all centres offer treatment with stem cells derived from adult tissues, mainly fat tissue.
The study shows that Google can be used as an environmental monitor to find out what information is available on a topic. In this case, it shows that there is a disconnect between a public expectation of stem cells curing untreatable disease and the reality of an unregulated health market treating, for instance, sport injuries.
The study is published open access in Frontiers in Public Health at: https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fict.2017.00028/abstract