From the margins to mainstream: How providers of autologous ‘stem cell treatments’ legitimise their practice in Australia

Casimir MacGregor, Alan Petersen, Megan Munsie

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleResearchpeer-review


This article examines how Australian providers of unproven autologous ‘stem cell treatments’ legitimise these products and their practices. We focus on the strategies employed by providers in their efforts to create and sustain a market for procedures that have yet to be proven safe and clinically efficacious. Drawing on the work of Thomas Gieryn and Pierre Bourdieu and the findings of research involving an analysis of directto-consumer online advertising of clinics that sell purported ‘stem cell treatments’ and interviews with clinicians who provide them, we examine the mechanisms by which medical legitimacy for these products is established and defended. We argue that Australian providers employ a number of strategies in order to create medical legitimacy for the use
and sale of scientifically unproven therapies. A key strategy employed by providers of stem cell treatments is to use markers of social distinction, drawing strongly on the symbols of science, to confirm their legitimacy and differentiate their own practices from those of other providers, who are posited as operating outside the boundary of accepted practice and hence illegitimate. We argue there is a paradox at the heart of the autologous stem cell treatment market. Providers aim to create legitimacy for their work by emphasising the potential benefits of their ‘treatments’, their expertise and the professionalisation of their
practices in an environment where regulators are yet to take a firm stance; they are also required to undertake the challenging task of managing patients’ hopes and expectations that both enable and potentially jeopardise their operations and revenue. We conclude by suggesting that providers’ creation of symbolic capital to establish medical legitimacy is a crucial means by which they seek to bring unproven ‘stem cell treatments’ from the margins of medicine into the mainstream and to portray themselves as medical pioneers rather than medical cowboys who exploit vulnerable patients.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages18
Publication statusAccepted/In press - 13 May 2019


  • bioethics
  • discourse nd conversation analysis
  • patient-physician relationship
  • profession and professionalisation

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