Companies Market Stem Cell Treatments to Long COVID Patients

Derick Alison
Derick Alison
8 Min Read

Clinics that sell stem cell and exosome treatments have turned their attention to long COVID patients, researchers found.

Among 38 businesses selling such treatments for COVID-19, the majority (36) marketed those therapies for long COVID, stated Leigh Turner, PhD, of the University of California Irvine, and colleagues in Stem Cell Reports.

“We didn’t think the pattern was going to emerge as strongly as it did,” Turner told MedPage Today.

Turner and his team have tracked stem cell clinics for years, building a database of clinics that operate in this arena. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, they logged how these businesses were taking advantage of patients’ fears by selling purported treatments for COVID.

They revisited some of those businesses last fall to see whether anything had changed as the pandemic shifted — and lo and behold, it had.

“The pandemic has changed over time, and now there’s a whole population of individuals who have had COVID-19, and they haven’t completely recovered,” Turner said. “They have lingering symptoms that are sometimes quite serious, sometimes life-altering” — and that can make people desperate to find treatments, he added.

“We have a population of patients who are looking for symptomatic relief,” Turner continued. “While we have long COVID clinics, people may not have an easy time getting access to them. There are long waits. And the interventions themselves may be rather limited in their effects.”

That has left the door wide open for stem cell marketers to try to reach these people, Turner said.

For their study, the researchers used three strategies to find stem cell and exosome clinics marketing to COVID patients online. They looked at an earlier database of 1,480 stem cell or exosome businesses in the U.S., searched Google for additional companies both in the U.S. and abroad, and looked at businesses mentioned in Turner’s 2021 Cell Stem Cell paper on companies selling stem cell treatments for COVID.

They revisited and re-analyzed all company websites in September 2022, with a final fact-check in October 2022.

Overall, they found 38 businesses that were advertising stem cell and exosome treatments for COVID, which were connected to 60 clinics.

Most of them were specifically marketing these therapies to patients with long COVID, while six businesses marketed their therapies as “immune boosters,” five claimed to treat acute COVID infection, and two claimed their products could prevent COVID.

The vast majority of these businesses were based in the U.S. (40%) and Mexico (37%), while four were in Ukraine, two were in the Cayman Islands, and other countries appeared to have one business each: Guatemala, Malaysia, Panama, Philippines, Poland, Spain, Thailand, and the United Arab Emirates.

Turner and colleagues found that these products weren’t cheap. Among the nine businesses that provided information on how much they charged, the least expensive product was $2,950, while the most expensive product cost $25,000. The average listed cost was $11,322, they found.

Turner said there are “plenty of things that can go wrong” when it comes to purported stem cell treatments for long COVID. These treatments are investigational and don’t have scientific evidence behind them proving their success for the condition, he said.

A patient’s “situation can be made dramatically worse if they’re given an infusion of a product that hasn’t been carefully studied or tested,” Turner told MedPage Today. “There’s a real possibility for serious injury in that situation, whether it’s pulmonary embolism, an infection, or something else.”

Indeed, many examples of stem cell treatments causing infections and other problems have been reported. The hit podcast “Bad Batch” examined an instance in which 12 people were hospitalized after getting contaminated stem cell injections. Nebraska health officials reported an outbreak of severe infections after exosome therapies. And researchers reported on three patients who had severe vision loss after intravitreal injections of autologous adipose tissue-derived stem cells.

There’s also “an obvious possibility for financial scams,” Turner said. “At an average price of $11,000, it’s not like going to the store and buying some dietary supplements.”

Turner said regulators should get tougher on companies peddling stem cell and exosome treatments for long COVID.

“I think it’s a modest number,” he said, referring to the 36 businesses his team discovered. “This seems like activity that probably deserves to be prioritized and seems like the kind of challenge the FDA and FTC [Federal Trade Commission] could actually do something about in a comprehensive way.”

The FDA and FTC have pursued stem cell companies in the past, with both regulators issuing warning letters to such companies. One healthcare professional was even sentenced to jail time for selling a fake stem cell therapy.

Still, many businesses have avoided attracting regulators’ attention, Turner said: “There’s a lot the FDA has done, but there’s still a massive marketplace.”

The study was limited because it likely identified only some companies operating in this space. Also, the researchers searched only in English, and searches in other languages may reveal additional companies. In addition, businesses may have used other forms of advertising — including billboards, newspaper or magazine ads, and radio or TV commercials — to reach their potential customers.

“It is understandable that individuals seeking relief from shortness of breath, fatigue, ‘brain fog,’ heart palpitations, loss of smell, and other symptoms search for interventions that might help them,” Turner and colleagues wrote. “Acknowledging the suffering and agency of such persons, members of this patient population are vulnerable to having their suffering, desperation, and hope exploited by entities making appealing therapeutic claims without having the scientific evidence needed to make such representations.”

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    Kristina Fiore leads MedPage’s enterprise & investigative reporting team. She’s been a medical journalist for more than a decade and her work has been recognized by Barlett & Steele, AHCJ, SABEW, and others. Send story tips to k.fiore@medpagetoday.com. Follow

Disclosures

The project is supported by the Pew Charitable Trusts.

Turner disclosed serving as an expert witness in cases regarding unapproved stem cell treatments, as well as relationships with the International Society for Stem Cell Research and the International Society for Cell and Gene Therapy.

Primary Source

Stem Cell Reports

Source Reference: Turner L, et al “Businesses marketing purported stem cell treatments and exosome therapies for COVID-19: An analysis of direct-to-consumer online advertising claims” Stem Cell Rep 2023; DOI: 10.1016/j.stemcr.2023.09.015.

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