Veterinary Stem Cells and Snake Oil

I have written several articles previously about veterinary stem cell therapies, which I view as a promising but as yet unproven treatment for a number of medical problems. (e.g. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5)  Though not “alternative” in origin, the marketing of these treatments and the arguments used to justify them in advance of adequate scientific data establishing safety and efficacy resembles the promotion of many alternative therapies.

I have received some pretty harsh criticism for suggesting this, so it was satisfying to read a recent editorial in the journal Veterinary Surgery:

Jeffery ND. Is ‘Stem Cell Therapy’ Becoming 21st Century Snake Oil? Veterinary Surgery 41 (2012) 189–19.

The author begins by cautioning us against “a non-critical acceptance of new advances because of a complacent assumption that previous mistakes regarding poor medical regulation will not be repeated in the modern world.” Obviously, this blog exists precisely because such mistakes, and reliance on prescientific methods of evaluating new ideas through personal experience, uncontrolled experimentation, and trust in authority, rather than reliance on rigorous controlled scientific research, are still widespread in our profession. As Dr. Jeffery correctly points out, the majority of veterinarians rightly deride pseudoscientific methods such as homeopathy (though too many still fall for it’s propaganda). And yet the same approaches to justifying other kinds of clinical interventions, both conventional and alternative, are all too common.

He then goes on to remind us that the promising preclinical research involving stem cell therapies does not justify their widespread clinical use without properly designed and conducted clinical trials. Most research on these therapies published so far has been methodologically inadequate to justify the burgeoning market in stem cells. However, the uncritical reports in the media of preclinical research, and the easy availability of testimonials and uncontrolled anecdotes about stem cell treatment, not to mention the aggressive marketing by stem cell therapy companies, make it “easy to sell to owners as a respectable treatment, even in the absence of rigorous proof of efficacy.”

Finally, Dr. Jeffery emphasizes something with which I conclude most of my own articles about unproven therapies, a call for a stricter standard in veterinary medicine for scientific evidence about our interventions.

Whilst stem cell therapy has rapidly achieved high profile in medicine and therefore even misplaced claims for efficacy are noteworthy it is not the only therapy in veterinary medicine or surgery for which there is insufficient evidence of benefit to support widespread implementation. Novel interventions for common conditions are published frequently in veterinary journals, including Veterinary Surgery. Whilst it is undoubtedly important that new interventions are explained through publication, it is essential that they should subsequently be subject to critical testing of their effectiveness before being widely accepted. This is currently not standard practice in veterinary medicine and surgery… Strict testing of novel interventions must become the norm for veterinarians to be able to maintain our view of ourselves as a ‘science-led’ profession.

I couldn’t agree more.

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8 Responses to Veterinary Stem Cells and Snake Oil

  1. skeptvet says:

    It is interesting that something so controversial in the human field, with only the “damn the Feds” types promoting it, is so widespread and accepted with so little debate in vet med.

  2. Rita says:

    yes, well, a lot of things that go on in various branches of human-nonhuman relations go without the sort of comment they would arouse in human-human behaviour, don’t they?

  3. Art says:

    Quackademic medicine until proven to work.
    Art Malernee dvm

  4. fluidtherapy says:


    A year has now passed and the stem cell folks are beating down my door. Medivet is the big player and Mike Hutchinson remains their icon. Are there any new developments in the field (excluding their glossy, fluff filled brochures) of which I should be aware?

    I thank you in advance for your time.

  5. skeptvet says:

    I’m not aware of any major developments. The folks from VetStem sent me a collection of articles a few months ago, and it didn’t have anything new in it.

  6. Art Malernee Dvm says:

    Just got back tonight from a required by law 2 hours of CE credits about stem cell therapy. The Dvm speaker said the company who was sponsoring the dinner/lecture was the best because they provided the most stem cells and they were activated by their laser light. Humans should seek the best stem cell therapy out of the USA at some of the tropical islands. Apparently the pesky FDA has limited the miraculous effects pets can obtain in the US in humans by heavy handed over regulation. Stem cells can be created in your office in just a few hours and most clients who pay for Cruciate surgery also will pay for stem cell therapy at the time of the surgery. Lots of pictures of lame and Paralized dogs making amazing recovery which last 12-18 months. It’s so fortunate that the state of Florida requires veterinarians to obtain all this scientific education to keep their license current.

  7. Michelle Michlewicz says:

    Desperate to help my dog, I was advertised stem cells for the arthritis in her knees and I decided to try it, the board certified neuro vet was SO adamant that this will help.

    It was very expensive, and I had to skrimp and save for that when I was already covering huge specialist and general veterinary bills (this was never a healthy dog, age really added up the issues) and am disabled, all my limited resources were going into her care. More money on things that don’t work means less money to spend on what actually does help the dog.

    The appointment put her under a lot of stress. She never liked going to vets, and I’ve never been able to change that. So it should be worth it.

    There was zero improvement. None. I put her through needles into her joints for nothing and ended up with less money to put into start actually decreases suffering from the pain.

    The vet said maybe another round at full price will do something this time. I declined and now that I have another senior dog, I won’t be going back to that vet.

    So I really appreciate the work you’re doing with these blogs. It allows owners to really help their dogs, like they should.

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