Stem cell clinics' much-hyped treatments lack scientific support | Science  News

Patients have been blinded or have experienced retinal detachments after treatment with so-called stem cell therapies such as intravitreal injections of autologous stem cells that are not FDA approved for many ocular conditions across the US and that were marketed directly to patients.

Currently, the FDA has regulatory authority over such companies and since June 2019, has been issuing orders to prevent them from developing or distributing stromal vascular fraction products that are not FDA approved, he explained.


The results of the analysis showed that 13 companies had removed their advertisements for ocular conditions, and 6 discontinued their URLs.

However, despite these findings, the total number of companies promoting treatment remained almost the same as the first study.

A total of 39 businesses with 62 clinics were identified by August 2019; 14 of these and 20 clinics were newly identified, Dr. Ross-Hirsch reported.

Most of the clinics were in Texas (n=12), California (n=11), Florida (n=10), and Illinois (n=10). When the investigators compared these numbers of clinics to those previously identified, the number in California decreased by 48% and the ones in Texas more than doubled, he said.

Most of the identified companies did not show their treatment fees, but of the 4 that did the costs ranged from $4,000 to $12,000/treatment. Consultation fees ranged from $350 to $800 when they were listed.

“All businesses marketed treatments for ocular diseases that included age-related macular degeneration [AMD], optic neuritis, retinitis pigmentosa [RP], diabetic retinopathy, and glaucoma,” he said. Most claimed to be able to treat AMD followed by RP.

Making claims

In commenting on the findings, Kuriyan said, “These websites contained various claims regarding the safety and the FDA, but the language contained variable and vague claims about the safety of the various cell therapies.”

Examples of the language were the following: not approved or evaluated by the FDA, participation in patient funded clinical research, use of FDA or institutional review board approved equipment and/or protocols for cell isolation, and use of FDA guidelines for minimally manipulated same-day procedures intended for homologous use.

“These companies identified in the study have the potential to leverage a façade of scientific legitimacy to capitalize on patients’ understandable desperation for effective sight-restoring therapies. Stem cell therapy is an area of active, intense, and scientifically rigorous research. In the future, it may safely and effectively treat a number of ocular conditions,” Kuriyan stated.

Lacking evidence

These companies persist despite the absence of high-quality evidence of the efficacy of the treatment, FDA approval of the procedures, the increasing regulatory oversight and legal action against some of these companies, and evidence of severe visual loss as a result of the procedures.

Ross-Hirsch emphasized the importance of both counseling by ophthalmologists and optometrists for patients as a safeguard against these companies and as stem cell therapies enter well-designed trials and evidence-based practice and federal regulation. However, regulation remains limited.


1. Nirwan RS, Albini TA, Sridhar J, et al. Assessing “cell therapy” clinics offering treatment of ocular conditions using direct-to-consumer marketing in the United States. Ophthalmology 2019;126:1350-1355.

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