Stem cell therapy for autism? The darker side of ‘quackademic medicine’

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Credit: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

As bad as the embrace of naturopathy, traditional Chinese medicine, and even reiki and homeopathy by some institutions that would normally be expected to be bastions of science-based medicine is, there is an even darker side to quackademic medicine. I’m referring to when researchers and universities team up with companies selling outright quackery.

Investigators in Duke’s autism program, led by Dr. Joanne Kurtzberg, [have] major enthusiasm for stem cell therapy using umbilical cord blood for autism, even though their clinical trials despite a negative phase II randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trial of umbilical cord blood for autism that showed no improvement in socialization skills or reduced autism symptoms. Other clinical trials also show no benefit.

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[T]he Marcus Foundation, which was founded by a billionaire who believes in unproven stem cell treatments that are basically quackery, has donated tens of millions of dollars to Duke to research cord blood and now stem cell treatments for autism. As Dr. [Paul] Knoepfler notes, now that cord blood therapies have resoundingly failed in Duke’s phase II clinical trial, Duke researchers are moving on to treatments based on growing stem cells in a lab to infuse into patients, treatments much more like what the Stem Cell Institute claims that it is doing.

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