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June 06, 2016

Advertising stem cell therapies in Japan

The Uehiro Research Division for iPS Cell Ethics investigates marketing strategies used by private clinics in Japan

Inappropriate marketing of stem cell therapies is a high concern among scientists. The unrealistic expectations created could cause public hostility towards these therapies when miracle cures do not arise. The Uehiro Research Division for iPS Cell Ethics at CiRA has been particularly interested in how private clinics in Japan, at which costs are covered 100% by the patient, advertise their services. In its most recent publication, the team shows that clinics tend to give an imbalanced impression, with high emphasis on the positives of stem cell therapies and little elaboration on the risks.

The group did a web search of 24 clinics and evaluated how their webpages describe the offered treatments. They found that not one clinic satisfied the e-Health Code of Ethics (eHCE) prepared by the Japan Internet Medical Association. "Ethicists use these ethics, but the public does not know about them," explains Hidenori Kashihara, first author of the paper, suggesting that the public does not seek any mark of approval from the association when viewing the pages.

In terms of services, a plurality of clinics offered cosmetic therapies, such as anti-aging, but in total one could find treatments for a comprehensive list of illnesses including cancer. Websites also tended to claim that the treatments could be customized to the patient. "We found webpages wrote 'personalized medicine' to make it sound more promising," said Kashihara, who worries that patients could misconstrue these claims to conclude that stem cell therapies are more effective than anything covered by the national insurance plan. More concerning was the absence of any conflict of interests. The eHCE stipulate that sponsorships should be disclosed, but not one of the investigated clinics reported any. On the other hand, the names of universities that collaborated with the clinics for research purposes were easy to find. As too were the names of any media that may have covered the clinics and their services.

Currently, adhering to policies on medical information is primarily voluntary. Kashihara wants his work to be a basis along with similar studies investigating medical information in other nations for internationally consistent guidelines. "Bad stem cell therapies can harm public support and stifle stem-cell based clinical applications," he warns.

Paper Details
Kashihara H, Nakayama T, Hatta T et al. (2016)
Evaluating the quality of website information of private-practice clinics offering cell therapies in Japan
Interact J Med Res 5(2):e15.

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