Research Brief

Crowdfunding campaigns for unproven stem cell-based interventions

A microscope

Hundreds of U.S. clinics are engaging in the online, direct-to-consumer marketing of unproven and unlicensed stem cell interventions. Due to most insurers not providing coverage for these unproven interventions, many people drawn by clinics' advertising claims create crowdfunding campaigns to solicit donations and gather the financial resources needed to pay for it.

The increasing number of such campaigns on crowdfunding platforms prompted a collaborative research effort—that included the University of Minnesota’s Center for Bioethics—to investigate questions about how benefits and risks related to unproven stem cell interventions are portrayed in patients' online campaigns to potential donors.

In the study published today in JAMA, researchers analyzed 408 crowdfunding campaigns on GoFundMe and YouCaring and discovered:

  • 44 percent of those campaigns included statements that were definitive or certain about the positive effects stem cell interventions would have for the campaigners;
  • 30 percent made statements that were optimistic or hopeful that the intervention would work;
  • only 8 percent (36 campaigns) of campaigns mentioned risks associated with unproven stem cell procedures; however, these campaigns only claimed stem cell interventions had low or no risks compared to alternative procedures.

“Our research suggests patients are deeply influenced by the misrepresentations clinics commonly use when marketing unproven stem cell 'treatments,'” said Leigh Turner, Ph.D., associate professor in the Center for Bioethics and one of the study’s authors. “Patients then propagate these inaccurate claims about risks and benefits in their crowdfunding campaigns.”

Overall, the 408 crowdfunding campaigns examined by researchers sought more than $7.4 million in donations. At the time of the analysis, campaigners had generated donations of approximately $1.4 million from 13,050 donors. The campaigns were connected to 50 U.S. businesses engaged in online, direct-to-consumer marketing of what the businesses represented to prospective clients as “stem cell treatments.”

Other authors on this study include Jeremy Snyder, Ph.D., and Valorie Crooks, Ph.D., with Simon Fraser University. Funding was provided through a Planning Grant from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.

About the Center for Bioethics
The Center for Bioethics helps students, professionals, policy makers, and the public confront and understand ethical issues in health, health care, new biomedical technologies, the environment, and the life sciences. We teach, publish, and help create policy through our outreach. We also offer programming that includes public engagement as part of our commitment to respond to issues and concerns important not just to the academic community but to communities within the Twin Cities and beyond.

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