Crowd-funders raise millions for useless cancer, stem cell treatments


Study finds plenty of money donated to evidence-free therapies. Samantha Page reports.


Despite a complete absence of evidence, people donate millions of dollars to crowd-funding campaigns for homeopathic and untested stem cell treatments.

Despite a complete absence of evidence, people donate millions of dollars to crowd-funding campaigns for homeopathic and untested stem cell treatments.

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Crowdfunding campaigns have raised millions of dollars toward medical treatments that are unsafe or unsupported, a new study finds.

More than 1000 crowdfunding campaigns, mostly through the site GoFundMe, have raised more than $US6.7 million to treat cancer, brain or spinal cord injury, and chronic Lyme disease, using therapies that are dangerous or ineffective, according to research appearing in the journal JAMA, led by Ford Vox of the Shepherd Centre in Atlanta, US.

“Assuming that the funds raised are spent to pay for these treatments, donors indirectly contributed millions of dollars to practitioners to deliver dubious, possibly unsafe care,” Vox and his team write.

The study, which looked at fund-raising efforts since November 2015, identified campaigns that sought to raise money for homeopathic or naturopathic approaches to cancer, hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT) and stem cell treatments for brain and spinal cord injury, and long-term antibiotic therapy for “chronic Lyme disease”.

“Homeopathic treatments for cancer and HBOT for brain injury are ineffective,” the authors write. “Stem cell therapy for central nervous system injury and long term antibiotic therapy for chronic Lyme disease can result in serious adverse events.”

The diseases and treatments were selected for “clinical experience and visibility”.

The researchers looked at four crowdfunding sites that allow medical campaigns: GoFundMe, YouCaring, CrowdRise, and FundRazr. All but 2% of the campaigns that met the study’s criteria were found on GoFundMe.

“The present study … suggests that medical crowdfunding is being used for multiple problematic treatments,” the researchers write.

Some 474 campaigns – nearly half of those that fitted the study’s guidelines – were for homeopathic or naturopathic cancer treatments, representing $US3.5 million in donations.

Overall, medical campaigns on GoFundMe raised $US3 billion overall in 2016, up $US1 billion from the previous year. Vox and his team note that the campaigns “can fill insurance gaps”, but problems arise when the funds are directed toward questionable practitioners.

Of course, some patients pay for their own dangerous care. Last year, it was revealed that three people in Florida, US, had lost their eyesight after paying for stem cell treatments at a facility they thought was conducting a clinical trial.

The news sparked calls for increased regulation of clinics, which “are marketing so-called stem cell treatments without first showing that they work or are safe”, as Megan Munsie and Claire Tanner from researcher collaboration Stem Cells Australia wrote in Cosmos earlier this year.

  1. http://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/fullarticle/10.1001/jama.2018.10264
  2. https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMoa1609583?query=TOC
  3. https://cosmosmagazine.com/biology/opinion-regulators-need-to-protect-stem-cell-promise
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