Moral obligations in conducting stem cell-based therapy trials for autism spectrum disorder

J Med Ethics. 2022 May;48(5):343-348. doi: 10.1136/medethics-2020-107106. Epub 2021 Apr 15.


Unregulated patient treatments and approved clinical trials have been conducted with haematopoietic stem cells and mesenchymal stem cells for children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). While the former direct-to-consumer practice is usually considered rogue and should be legally constrained, regulated clinical trials could also be ethically questionable. Here, we outline principal objections against these trials as they are currently conducted. Notably, these often lack a clear rationale for how transplanted cells may confer a therapeutic benefit in ASD, and thus, have ill-defined therapeutic outcomes. We posit that ambiguous and unsubstantiated descriptions of outcome from such clinical trials may nonetheless appeal to the lay public as being based on authentic scientific findings. These may further fuel caregivers of patients with ASD to pursue unregulated direct-to-consumer treatments, thus exposing them to unnecessary risks. There is, therefore, a moral obligation on the part of those regulating and conducting clinical trials of stem cell-based therapeutic for ASD minors to incorporate clear therapeutic targets, scientific rigour and reporting accuracy in their work. Any further stem cell-based trials for ASD unsupported by significant preclinical advances and particularly sound scientific hypothesis and aims would be ethically indefensible.

Keywords: clinical ethics; clinical trials; research ethics; research on special populations; stem cell research.

MeSH terms

  • Autism Spectrum Disorder* / therapy
  • Child
  • Humans
  • Moral Obligations
  • Stem Cell Transplantation