Beware of Snake Oil Salesmen

June 20th, 2005

Posted by: admin

I recently received a letter from the Stem Cell Research Foundation which asked me to make a donation in order to support grants that, according to their website, support “innovative basic and clinical research”. I have several problems with the SCRF’s solicitation efforts, and in fact, find the letter to be rather … distasteful.

First, the SCRF plays fast and loose with the purpose of basic research, which is essentially curiosity-driven and free from consideration of use, with solutions, cures and remedies. While they get the notion of basic research right: “We can’t know what lies ahead and we must be realistic!” they unfortunately slip into sales-pitch-mode with allusions of future cures for stroke, heart disease “and for a huge array of other diseases and conditions”. Furthermore, they say, “…the only problem with stem cell therapy is that it isn’t progressing fast enough!” Aha! So if I donate money to support innovative basic research then stem cell therapies will be developed sooner. The problem is that there is no guaranteed connection between the basic research the foundation supports, and any future pay-off. And according to my layperson’s eye, most of the current research seems to be basic in nature. (I’m open to correction if I’ve read it wrong). But as the science community knows all too well, at least as far as Federal funding is concerned (see this posting), in order to compete for limited resources and get funded, promises of future pay-offs and benefits have to be made. Has the SCRF learned to play the game, and if so, is this even a game that is appropriate to play?

Second, the letter has a rather distasteful overtone that reminds one of snake-oil salesmanship. Note the following sentences which are obviously geared toward vulnerable populations: “Imagine the hope this research would bring to the cancer patient who wants to see a favorite grandchild graduate – the stroke sufferer who would give anything to hold someone’s hand – the burn victim desperately in need of new skin cells”, and even worse: “If you know someone suffering from a disease who feels life is leaking away along with all hope of aid, I urge you to pass on this exciting news to bolster their flagging spirits”. Step right up, Grandma. I know you’re on a fixed income and time is running out, but could you spare $50 to support some basic research?

Sure, a lot of 501(c)3 organizations use similar rhetoric in their appeals for donations, but there is a big difference between what the SCRF seems to be asking for (support for mostly basic research and – fingers crossed – cures to nasty diseases in the future) and other organizations that have deliverables. For example, while donations to the American Heart Association support research, it also supports public education (diet, exercise, etc.), training (e.g. CPR), and support for treatment. The SCRF could improve its image (at least in my mind) if it were to be more honest and forthright about its mission and the intrinsic value of basic research and not make any allusions to future pay-offs they can’t guarantee.

So what? The folks over at the American Journal of Bioethics recently discussed the problem on their blog of what they call the “get it now or else” call from supporters of stem cell research. The editors highlight a recent opinion piece written by UC Irvine professor, Peter Bryant, who makes a claim that unless the administration lifts its restrictions of funding for federal stem cell research, “those treatments [e.g. limb regeneration and repair of spinal cord injuries] may never be available to the maimed veterans in VA hospitals”. The AJB writers point to the downside of the “get it now ore else thing” which “just makes it easier for the opponents of stem cell research to paint stem cell researches as over-eager salesmen of therapeutic misconception.”

At what point does society draw the line in this sort of marketing? Should it? The FDA has the Division of Drug Marketing, Advertising and Communications that regulates advertising and claims made by drug manufacturers. Is there a role for such an organization in the world of stem-cell research? Not likely, but stem cell supporters and researchers may hurt their interests in the long term if the public begins to view them in the short term as just another special interest group that makes over zealous claims of cures and therapies.

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