1 of 2 | This is an illustration of the COVID-19 virus. Persisting brain fog, fatigue and other symptoms often are defined as long COVID and can be debilitating. Image courtesy of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
NEW YORK, Oct. 26 (UPI) -- A new analysis finds that many clinics continue to promote unproven stem cell interventions as treatments for COVID-19 and long COVID.
The analysis, published Thursday in the journal Stem Cell Reports, identified 38 businesses engaged in direct-to-consumer marketing of purported stem cell treatments and exosome therapies for preventing and treating COVID-19. Exosomes are messenger particles that are responsible for cell-to-cell communication.
These interventions have not been approved or authorized by national regulatory bodies and are not supported by convincing safety and efficacy data, the analysis notes.
These businesses operated or facilitated access to 60 clinics. Most of the companies claim to treat long COVID, the persisting brain fog, fatigue and other symptoms some individuals who had COVID-19 experience.
"We completed this study because we wanted to explore how U.S. businesses and international companies marketing unproven stem cell interventions have adapted their advertising pitches to the COVID-19 pandemic," said Leigh Turner, the analysis' first author.
"Of the 38 businesses, 36 of them marketed stem cell and exosome products as treatments for long COVID, six advertised them as 'immune boosters,' five claimed they treated patients in the acute infection phase, and two claimed the products they sold were preventive in nature," said Turner, a professor of health, society & behavior at the University of California-Irvine.
"The chief takeaway from these findings is that businesses engaged in direct-to-consumer marketing of stem cells and exosomes for COVID-19 are overwhelmingly focused on targeting patients suffering from long COVID."
More than three-fourths of the 60 clinics are based in the United States and Mexico. Similar clinics exist in the Cayman Islands, Guatemala, Malaysia, Panama, Philippines, Poland, Spain, Thailand, Ukraine and the United Arab Emirates.
Aside from the potential medical and psychological risks that these products pose, the analysis found the cost of many to be exorbitant. For the subset of businesses that disclosed information about pricing on their websites, the cost of "treatments" ranged from $2,950 to $25,000, with the average being $11,322, Turner said.
In addition to using their websites to engage in direct-to-consumer marketing of these "interventions," he said some businesses also promoted themselves on social media platforms such as Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Instagram and TikTok.
"At present, long COVID is a disease with highly distressing and disabling symptoms that affects hundreds of millions of people. The U.S. government has been slow to fund research, especially into long COVID treatment," said Dr. Andrew Schamess, an internal medicine physician who has been treating long COVID patients in the Post COVID Recovery Program at Ohio State University's Wexner Medical Center in Columbus.
"Misinformation and fraudulent therapies thrive in a scientific vacuum," Schamess said. "There is an opportunity for private donors and investors to work with the patient community and with long COVID clinicians to design and execute clinical trials to develop and test therapies that will actually help patients."
Stem cells have a long history of being marketed as unproven treatments for numerous illnesses. As a result, many medical societies have made official statements cautioning doctors and patients about these claims, said Dr. Marc Sala, an assistant professor of medicine and co-director of the Comprehensive COVID Center at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago.
"This is just another example," Sala said. "It's unfortunate because, while breakthroughs in science can be slow in new areas of research like long COVID, there is without doubt one wrong way to address that, and that is to entirely skip the scientific process."
Dr. Sritha Rajupet, director of the Stony Brook Medicine Post-COVID Clinic in Lake Grove, N.Y., said the institution has received requests from companies to help offer such interventions to its patients but declined them after careful review.
"Patients are suffering and are struggling to find something that works," said Rajupet, who is a clinical associate professor of family medicine. "These interventions are marketed to promise solutions to patients who are at their most vulnerable state now and may cause physical, emotional or even financial harm.
She added that "the best advice I can offer to patients is to bring information about these interventions to their doctors to discuss."
Dr. PJ Utz, a professor of medicine focused on immunology and rheumatology at Stanford Medicine in Palo Alto, Calif., told UPI via email that he regularly receives email or phone inquiries from people suffering from long COVID who, in their desperation, fell prey to unproven therapies.
To avoid becoming a victim of such misrepresentations, he recommends asking a few simple questions: "Is this approved by the FDA? Will I be part of a clinical trial that is testing this therapy? Has your institution reviewed this protocol? The likely answer to all of these questions will be 'no.'
"My suggestion is to ask your primary care doctor or someone with long COVID experience at an academic center to weigh in. Buyer beware."