Stem cell research has attracted much public and biomedical anticipation centred on the possibility of using stem cells to treat various diseases and conditions, but the number of evidence-based therapies is currently limited. Numerous commercial direct-to-consumer (DTC) businesses are nonetheless marketing experimental stem cell therapies online for myriad medical conditions and aesthetic ailments, which has attracted critique due to safety and efficacy concerns. Existing research has largely focused on the problem of unproven therapies and regulatory pathways for addressing it. The proliferation of these experimental products must also be examined, however, in the broader socio-technological context of consumer culture and changing practices of knowledge-making in the digital era. DTC stem cell therapies have emerged as a new biomedical ‘lifestyle’ product that blurs the boundaries between ‘science,’ ‘medicine,’ and ‘consumer culture.’ In using, conceptualising and marketing stem cells, commercial businesses build on and commercially co-opt alternative epistemic and ontological frames that challenge scientific medicine. They advance promissory narratives about their potential that tap on cultural aspirations around the future of medicine and health. This is key, not only for understanding how and why these therapies have proliferated but also in conceptualising what the ‘problem’ around them actually is.
We acknowledge the support of the Wellcome Trust in funding the Seed Award ‘Patienthood and Participation in the Digital Era’ (grant number 201652/Z/16/Z); research on this project contributed to the writing of this paper.
- stem cells
- experimental therapies
- digital era