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Saturday, September 27 • 15:16 - 15:35
"Representations of Stem Cell Clinics on Twitter"

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Background: The practice of travelling abroad to receive (scientifically) unproven stem cell treatments has become an increasingly problematic global phenomenon known as ‘stem cell tourism’. A number of studies have explored online direct-to-consumer advertising by providers and news media portrayals of the stem cell tourism phenomenon (Lau et al., 2008; Ogbogu, Rachul, & Caulfield, 2013; Zarzeczny et al., 2010). There has not been an attempt, however, to track the clinics’ activities on social networks, such as YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook, which in recent years have emerged as an important source of health information for the general public.

Objective: In this paper, we examine the Twitter profiles of nine stem cell clinics which have become popular destinations for stem cell tourism. These providers operate in jurisdictions such as China, India, Mexico, Ukraine, and the Dominican Republic, where there is no stringent regulatory oversight of experimental stem cell treatments. We conducted content analysis of relevant tweets to evaluate the clinics’ profiles on the micro-blogging network.

Methods: Using Twitter’s built-in search engine, we collected all English language tweets (n=363) between 2009 and 2013 that that were tweeted by the clinics or by users specifically referring to activities by these clinics. We coded the tweets for marketing claims, discussions of safety and efficacy of stem cell therapies, descriptions of patients' experiences, and other relevant medical information (e.g., mentions of types of stem cell transplants, diseases treated and treatment protocols).

Results: Advertisements of stem cell tourism activities and other promotional content were found in 84.7% of the tweets.There was an unbalanced portrayal of health risks and benefits (only 1.1% of tweets mentioned negative outcomes, while 35.1% indicated the effectiveness of stem cell treatments offered by the clinics). Patients’ experiences and testimonials were referenced in 11.1% of the tweets and were invariably described in a positive light. Medical information about the type of stem cell transplants and treatment protocols was rarely included. Finally, the assessment of the tone of Twitter posts showed that 60.2% were positive towards the practice of traveling abroad to receive unregulated stem cell treatments, 35.4% were descriptive (neutral tone), and only 4.5% were negative or raised critical concerns about health risks associated with unproven stem cell therapies.

Conclusions:  When placed in the context of past research on the problems associated with the marketing of unproven stem cell therapies, this analysis of representations on Twitter suggests that discussions in social media have also remained largely uncritical of the stem cell tourism phenomenon, with inaccurate representations of risks and benefits for patients.


Lau, D., Ogbogu, U., Taylor, B., Stafinski, T., Menon, D., & Caulfield, T. (2008). Stem cell clinics online: the direct-to-consumer portrayal of stem cell medicine. Cell Stem Cell, 3(6), 591-594.

Ogbogu U., Rachul C., & Caulfield T. 2013. Reassessing direct-to-consumer portrayals of unproven stem cell therapies: Is it getting better? Regenerative Medicine, 8(3), 361-369.

Zarzeczny, A., Rachul, C., Nisbet, M., & Caulfield, T. 2010. Stem cell clinics in the news. Nature Biotechnology, 28(12), 1243-1246.


avatar for Timothy Caulfield

Timothy Caulfield

Canada Research Chair - Health; Professor, Faculty of Law and the School of Public Health at the University of Alberta
Timothy Caulfield is a Canada Research Chair in Health Law and Policy and a Professor in the Faculty of Law and the School of Public Health at the University of Alberta. He has been the Research Director of the Health Law Institute at the University of Alberta since 1993. Over the... Read More →

Kalina Kamenova

PhD, Research Associate, Health Law Institute, University of Alberta

Saturday September 27, 2014 15:16 - 15:35
TRS 1-003 Ted Rogers School of Management

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