Google eases ban on ads for stem cell therapies

What started out as an effort by Google to crack down on predatory stem cell clinics advertising bogus therapies seems to be getting diluted. Now the concern is whether that will make it easier for these clinics to lure unsuspecting patients to pay good money for bad treatments?

A little background might help here. For years Google placed no restrictions on ads by clinics that claimed their stem cell “therapies” could cure or treat all manner of ailments. Then in September of 2019 Google changed its policy and announced it was going to restrict advertisements for stem cell clinics offering unproven, cellular and gene therapies.

This new policy was welcomed by people like Dr. Paul Knoepfler, a stem cell scientist at UC Davis and longtime critic of these clinics. In his blog, The Niche, he said it was great news:

“Google Ads for stem cell clinics have definitely driven hundreds if not thousands of customers to unproven stem cell clinics. It’s very likely that many of the patients who have ended up in the hospital due to bad outcomes from clinic injections first went to those firms because of Google ads. These ads and certain particularly risky clinics also are a real threat to the legitimate stem cell and gene therapy fields.”

Now the search-engine giant seems to be adjusting that policy. Google says that starting July 11 it will permit ads for stem cell therapies approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). That’s fine. Anything that has gone through the FDA’s rigorous approval process deserves to be allowed to advertise.

The real concern lies with another adjustment to the policy where Google says it will allow companies to post ads as long as they are “exclusively educational or informational in nature, regardless of regulatory approval status.” The problem is, Google doesn’t define what constitutes “educational or informational”. That leaves the door open for these clinics to say pretty much anything they want and claim it meets the new guidelines.

To highlight that point Gizmodo did a quick search on Google using the phrase “stem cells for neuropathy” and quickly came up with a series of ads that are offering “therapies” clearly not approved by the FDA. One ad claimed it was “FDA registered”, a meaningless phrase but one clearly designed to add an air of authenticity to whatever remedy they were peddling.

The intent behind Google’s change of policy is clearly good, to allow companies offering FDA-approved therapies to advertise. However, the outcome may not be quite so worthy, and might once again put patients at risk of being tricked into trying “therapies” that will almost certainly not do them any good, and might even put them in harm’s way.

It’s hard to be modest when people keep telling you how good you are

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I have a confession. Deep down I’m shallow. So when something I am part of is acknowledged as one of the best, I delight in it (my fellow bloggers Katie and Esteban also delight in it, I am just more shameless about letting everyone know.)

And that is just what happened with this blog, The Stem Cellar. We have been named as one of the “22 best biology and stem cell blogs of 2022”. And not just by anyone. We were honored by Dr. Paul Knoepfler, a stem cell scientist, avid blogger and all-round renaissance man (full disclosure, Paul is a recipient of CIRM funding but that has nothing to do with this award. Obviously.)

We are particularly honored to be on the list because Paul includes some heavy hitters including The Signals Blog, a site that he describes this way:

“This one from our friends in Canada is fantastic. They literally have dozens of authors, which is probably the most of any stem cell-related website, and their articles include many interesting angles. They post really often too. I might rank Signal and The Stem Cellar as tied for best stem cell blog in 2021.”

Now I’m really blushing.

Other highly regarded blogs are EuroStemCell, the Mayo Clinic Regenerative Medicine Blog and Stem Cell Battles (by Don Reed, a good friend of CIRM’s)

Another one of the 22 is David Jensen’s California Stem Cell report which is dedicated to covering the work of, you guessed it, CIRM. So, not only are we great bloggers, we are apparently great to blog about. 

As a further demonstration of my modesty I wanted to point out that Paul regularly produces ‘best of’ lists, including his recent “50 influencers on stem cells on Twitter to follow” which we were also on.

Now-Defunct For-Profit Stem Cell Clinic Ordered to Pay $5.1 Million for Scamming Patients Through False Advertising

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Photo of New York Attorney General Letitia James courtesy Wikimedia commons

A now-defunct New York City for-profit stem cell clinic — Park Avenue Stem Cell — was order by court to pay $5.1 million in potential consumer restitution, penalties, and costs for fraudulently and illegally advertising their stem cell procedures. The judgment resolves a 2019 lawsuit by New York State Attorney General Letitia James which claimed the defendants’ scammed patients out of thousands of dollars each for unproven and potentially harmful medical treatments involving stem cells. 

According to the lawsuit, the clinic falsely advertised on their website, social media, television, and foreign language newspapers that they could treat a variety of serious medical conditions — including erectile dysfunction and Parkinson’s disease — using patients’ own stem cells. Consumers paid the clinic nearly $4,000 per procedure, with some consumers paying more than $20,000 for multiple procedures. Most of the procedures involved adipose stem cells, which are derived from a patient’s own fat tissues.   

The court says the defendants misrepresented that their procedures were approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), that their patients were participating in an established research study, and that their procedures had been endorsed by several scientific and medical organizations.   

As a state agency, CIRM’s duty is to educate the public about the concerns over “stem cell tourism” and the growing number of predatory clinics that advertise unproven stem cell therapies at great cost to the patient.  

In addition to hosting public forums on stem cell tourism concerns and resources for patients seeking stem cell treatments, CIRM partnered with California State Senator Ed Hernandez (D-West Covina) to create a new law that attempts to address the issue. The bill, SB 512, was passed in 2017 and now requires medical clinics whose stem cell treatments are not FDA approved to post notices and provide handouts to patients warning them about the potential risk.  

Read more about this lawsuit at the New York Attorney general’s website. 

Beware of misleading headlines and claims

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Coronavirus particles, illustration.

When the COVID pandemic broke out researchers all over the world scrambled to find new approaches to tackling the virus. Some of these, such as the vaccines, proved remarkably effective. Others, such as the anti-parasite medication ivermectin or the anti-malaria drug chloroquine, were not only not helpful, they were sometimes harmful.

Part of the problem was the understandable desire to find something, anything that would protect people from the virus. But another part of the problem was that even with research that was based on solid science, the reporting of that research in the media sometimes tilted towards hype rather than hard evidence.

A new study in the journal Stem Cell Reports takes a look at the explosion of research targeting COVID. They highlighted the lack of rigor that sometimes accompanied that research, and the lack of regulation that allowed some predatory clinics to offer stem cell “therapies” that had never been tested in people let alone shown to be either safe or effective.

Dr. Leigh Turner, from the University of California Irvine and a co-author of the study, warned against studies that were cutting ethical and scientific corners. “Scientists, regulators, and policymakers must guard against the proliferation of poorly designed, underpowered, and duplicative studies that are launched with undue haste because of the pandemic, but are unlikely to provide convincing, clinically meaningful safety and efficacy data.”

The researchers cited an earlier study (by UC Davis’ Dr. Paul Knoepfler and Dr. Mina Kim) that looked at 70 clinical trials involving cell-based treatments for COVID-19. Drs. Knoepfler and Kim found that most were small, involving around 50 patients, and only 22.8% were randomized, double-blinded, and controlled experiments. They say even if these produced promising results they would have to be tested in much larger numbers to be of real benefit.

Another issue that Turner and his team highlighted was the hype that sometimes accompanied this work, citing news releases that over-hyped findings and failed to mention study limitations to gain more media coverage.

In a news release Dr. Laertis Ikonomou, of the University at Buffalo and a co-author of the study, said over-hyping treatments is nothing new but that it seemed to become even more common during COVID.

“Therefore, it is even more important to communicate promising developments in COVID-19-related science and clinical management [responsibly]. Key features of good communication are an accurate understanding of new findings, including study limitations and avoidance of sensationalist language.”

“Realistic time frames for clinical translation are equally important as is the realization that promising interventions at preliminary stages may not always translate to proven treatments following rigorous testing.”

They also warned about clinics advertising “stem cell therapies” that were unproven and unlicensed and often involved injecting the patients’ own cells back into them. The researchers say it’s time that the FDA and other authorities cracked down on companies taking advantage of patients in this way.

“If companies and affiliated clinicians are not fined, forced to return to patients whatever profits they have made, confronted with criminal charges, subject to revocation of medical licensure, or otherwise subject to serious legal and financial consequences, it is possible that more businesses will be drawn to this space because of the profits that can be generated from selling unlicensed and unproven cell-based products in the midst of a pandemic.”

At a time when so many were dying or suffering long-term health problems as a result of COVID, it’s unconscionable that others were happy to cash in on the fear and pain to make a quick buck.

When the pandemic broke out the CIRM Board voted to approved $5 million in emergency funding to help develop new therapies to combat the virus. Altogether we funded 17 different projects including three clinical trials.

Wit, wisdom and a glimpse into the future

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As of this moment, there are over two million podcasts and over 48 million episodes to listen to on your favorite listening device. If you’re a true crime enthusiast like me, you’ve surely heard of Casefile or one of the other 94 podcasts on the topic. But what if you’re looking for something a little less ghastly and a little more uplifting?

Dr. Daylon James, co-host of The Stem Cell Podcast

The Stem Cell Podcast is an informative and entertaining resource for scientists and science enthusiasts (or really, anyone) interested in learning about the latest developments in stem cell research.

Dr. Arun Sharma, co-host of The Stem Cell Podcast

On their latest episode, dynamic co-hosts and research scientists Dr. Daylon James and Dr. Arun Sharma sit down with our President & CEO, Dr. Maria Millan, to discuss the impact of California’s culture of innovation on CIRM, the challenge of balancing hope vs. hype in the context of stem cell research/therapies, and the evolution of the agency over the past 15 years.

Listen on as Dr. Millan highlights some of CIRM’s greatest victories and shares our mission for the future.

Feds hit predatory stem cell clinics with a one-two punch

Federal Trade Commission

Stem cells have a number of amazing properties and tremendous potential to heal previously untreatable conditions. But they also have the potential to create a financial windfall for clinics that are more focused on lining their wallets than helping patients. Now the federal government is cracking down on some of these clinics in a couple of different ways.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) sent a warning letter to the Utah Cord Bank LLC and associated companies warning them that the products it sold – specifically “human umbilical cord blood, umbilical cord, and amniotic membrane derived cellular products” – were violating the law.

At the same time the Federal Trade Commission and the Georgia Office of the Attorney General began legal proceedings against Regenerative Medicine Institute of America. The lawsuit says the company claims its products can rebuild cartilage and help treat joint and arthritis pain, and is charging patients thousands of dollars for “treatments” that haven’t been shown to be either safe or effective.

Bloomberg Law reporter Jeannie Baumann recently wrote a fine, in-depth article on these latest steps against predatory stem cell clinics.

CIRM has been a fierce opponents of bogus stem cell clinics for years and has worked with California lawmakers to try and crack down on them. We’re delighted to see that the federal government is stepping up its efforts to stop them marketing their snake oil to unsuspecting patients and will support them every step along the way.

CIRM has produced a short video and other easy to digest information on questions people should ask before signing up for any clinical trial. You can find those resources here.

CIRM has also published findings in Stem Cells Translational Medicine that discuss the three R’s–regulated, reliable, and reputable–and how these can help protect patients with uniform standards for stem cell treatments .

A conversation with Bob Klein about the past, present and future of CIRM

Bob Klein

Anyone who knows anything about CIRM knows about Bob Klein. He’s the main author and driving force behind both Proposition 71 and Proposition 14, the voter-approved ballot initiatives that first created and then refunded CIRM. It’s safe to say that without Bob there’d be no CIRM.

Recently we had the great good fortune to sit down with Bob to chat about the challenges of getting a proposition on the ballot in a time of pandemic and electoral pandemonium, what he thinks CIRM’s biggest achievements are (so far) and what his future plans are.

You can hear that conversation in the latest episode of our podcast, “Talking ’bout (re) Generation”.

Enjoy.

Call for a worldwide approach to regulating predatory stem cell clinics

You can’t fix a global problem at the local level. That’s the gist of a new perspective piece in the journal Stem Cell Reports that calls for a global approach to rogue stem cell clinics that offer bogus therapies.

The authors of the article are calling on the World Health Organization (WHO) to set up an advisory committee to draw up rules and regulations to help guide countries trying to shut these clinics down.

In a news release, senior author Mohamed Abou-el-Enein, the executive director of the joint University of Southern California/Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles Cell Therapy Program, says these clinics are trying to cash in on the promise of regenerative medicine.

“Starting in the early 2000s… unregulated stem cell clinics offering untested and poorly characterized treatments with insufficient information on their safety and efficacy began emerging all over the world, taking advantage of the media hype around stem cells and patients’ hope and desperation.”

Dr. Larry Goldstein

The authors include Lawrence Goldstein, PhD, a CIRM Board member and a Science Policy Fellows for the International Society for Stem Cell Research (ISSCR).

Zubin Master, an associate professor of biomedical ethics at the Mayo Clinic, says the clinics prey on vulnerable people who have serious medical conditions and who have often tried conventional medical approaches without success.

“We should aim to develop pathways to provide patients with evidenced-based experimental regenerative intervention as possible options where there is oversight, especially in circumstances where there is no suitable alternative left.”

The report says: “The unproven SCI (stem cell intervention) industry threatens the advancement of regenerative medicine. Reports of adverse events from unproven SCIs has the potential to affect funding and clinical trial recruitment, as well as increasing burdens among regulatory agencies to oversee the industry.

Permitting unregulated SCIs to flourish demonstrates a lack of concern over patient welfare and undermines the need for scientific evidence for medicinal product R&D. While some regulatory agencies have limited oversight or enforcement powers, or choose not to use them, unproven SCI clinics still serve to undermine authority given to regulatory agencies and may reduce public trust impacting the development of safe and effective therapies. Addressing the continued proliferation of clinics offering unproven SCIs is a problem worth addressing now.”

The authors say the WHO is uniquely positioned to help create a framework for the field that can help address these issues. They recommend setting up an advisory committee to develop global standards for regulations governing these clinics that could be applied in all countries. They also say we need more educational materials to let physicians as well as patients understand the health risks posed by bogus clinics.

This article comes out in the same week that reports by the Pew Charitable Trust and the FDA also called for greater regulation of these predatory clinics (we blogged about that here). Clearly there is growing recognition both in the US and worldwide that these clinics pose a threat not just to the health and safety of patients, but also to the reputation of the field of regenerative medicine as a whole.

“I believe that the global spread of unproven stem cell therapies reflects critical gaps in the international system for responding to health crises, which could put the life of thousands of patients in danger,” Abou-el-Enein says. “Urgent measures are needed to enhance the global regulatory capacity to detect and respond to this eminent crisis rapidly.”

Two voices, one message, watch out for predatory stem cell clinics

Last week two new papers came out echoing each other about the dangers of bogus “therapies” being offered by predatory stem cell clinics and the risks they pose to patients.

The first was from the Pew Charitable Trusts entitled: ‘Harms Linked to Unapproved Stem Cell Interventions Highlight Need for Greater FDA Enforcement’ with a subtitle: Unproven regenerative medical products have led to infections, disabilities, and deaths.’

That pretty much says everything you need to know about the report, and in pretty stark terms; need for greater FDA enforcement and infections, disabilities and deaths.

Just two days later, as if in response to the call for greater enforcement, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) came out with its own paper titled: ‘Important Patient and Consumer Information About Regenerative Medicine Therapies.’ Like the Pew report the FDA’s paper highlighted the dangers of unproven and unapproved “therapies” saying it “has received reports of blindness, tumor formation, infections, and more… due to the use of these unapproved products.”

The FDA runs down a list of diseases and conditions that predatory clinics claim they can cure without any evidence that what they offer is even safe, let alone effective. It says Regenerative Medicine therapies have not been approved for the treatment of:

  • Arthritis, osteoarthritis, rheumatism, hip pain, knee pain or shoulder pain.
  • Blindness or vision loss, autism, chronic pain or fatigue.
  • Neurological conditions like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
  • Heart disease, lung disease or stroke.

The FDA says it has warned clinics offering these “therapies” to stop or face the risk of legal action, and it warns consumers: “Please know that if you are being charged for these products or offered these products outside of a clinical trial, you are likely being deceived and offered a product illegally.”

It tells consumers if you are offered one of these therapies – often at great personal cost running into the thousands, even tens of thousands of dollars – you should contact the FDA at ocod@fda.hhs.gov.

The Pew report highlights just how dangerous these “therapies” are for patients. They did a deep dive into health records and found that between 2004 and September 2020 there were more than 360 reported cases of patients experiencing serious side effects from a clinic that offered unproven and unapproved stem cell procedures.

Those side effects include 20 deaths as well as serious and even lifelong disabilities such as:

  • Partial or complete blindness (9).
  • Paraplegia (1).
  • Pulmonary embolism (6).
  • Heart attack (5).
  • Tumors, lesions, or other growths (16).
  • Organ damage or failure in several cases that resulted in death.

More than one hundred of the patients identified had to be hospitalized.

The most common type of procedures these patients were given were stem cells taken from their own body and then injected into their eye, spine, hip, shoulder, or knee. The second most common was stem cells from a donor that were then injected.

The Pew report cites the case of one California-based stem cell company that sold products manufactured without proper safety measures, “including a failure to properly screen for communicable diseases such as HIV and hepatitis B and C.” Those products led to at least 13 people being hospitalized due to serious bacterial infection in Texas, Arizona, Kansas, and Florida.

Shocking as these statistics are, the report says this is probably a gross under count of actual harm caused by the bogus clinics. It says the clinics themselves rarely report adverse events and many patients don’t report them either, unless they are so serious that they require medical intervention.

The Pew report concludes by saying the FDA needs more resources so it can more effectively act against these clinics and shut them down when necessary. It says the agency needs to encourage doctors and patients to report any unexpected side effects, saying: “devising effective strategies to collect more real-world evidence of harm can help the agency in its efforts to curb the growth of this unregulated market and ensure that the regenerative medicine field develops into one that clinicians and patients can trust and safely access.”

We completely support both reports and will continue to work with the FDA and anyone else opposed to these predatory clinics. You can read more here about what we have been doing to oppose these clinics, and here is information that will help inform your decision if you are thinking about taking part in a stem cell clinical trial but are not sure if it’s a legitimate one.

Regulated, Reputable and Reliable: FDA’s Taking Additional Steps to Advance Safe and Effective Regenerative Medicine Products

Peter Marks, M.D., Ph.D., Director, Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research

In February 2020, CIRM presented a series of benchmarks for the responsible delivery of stem cell and regenerative medicine products. These benchmarks are outlined in the publication Regulated, reliable and reputable: Protect patients with uniform standards for stem cell treatments. In a nutshell, CIRM advocates for the delivery of regenerative medicine products in a context where:

  • The product is authorized by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and is overseen by an IRB or ethics board,
  • The treatment is delivered by qualified doctors, nurses, and technicians,
  • Treatment occurs at a clinical treatment center with expertise in regenerative medicine, and
  • There is ongoing monitoring and follow-up of patients.

On April 21 of 2021, Dr. Peter Marks, Director of the Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research, indicated the FDA’s intent to ensure new regenerative medicine products are FDA-authorized. Specifically, the FDA will require product developers to obtain an Investigational New Drug or IND authorization. In his news release Dr. Marks says the agency is willing to exercise more enforcement of these rules should clinics or therapy producers fail to follow these guidelines.

“These regenerative medicine products are not without risk and are often marketed by clinics as being safe and effective for the treatment of a wide range of diseases or conditions, even though they haven’t been adequately studied in clinical trials. We’ve said previously and want to reiterate here – there is no room for manufacturers, clinics, or health care practitioners to place patients at risk through products that violate the law, including by not having an IND in effect or an approved biologics license. We will continue to take action regarding unlawfully marketed products.”

IND authorization is particularly important as the agency pays close attention to how the product is produced and whether there is a scientific rationale and potential clinical evidence that it may be effective against the specific disease condition. All CIRM-funded clinical trials and all trials conducted in the CIRM Alpha Stem Cell Clinics Network must have IND authorization.

Regenerative medicine products are generally created from human cells or tissues. These products are frequently referred to as “living medicines.” The “living” nature of these products is what contributes to their remarkable potential to relieve, stop or reverse disease in a durable or sustainable manner.

The risk with unregulated products is that there is no assurance that they have been  produced in a quality controlled process or manner  where all components of the  injected material have been well characterized and studied for safety and efficacy for a given disease as well as a specific site in the body. In addition, there is no way to ensure that unregulated products meet standards or quality specifications such as ensuring that they have the active and beneficial component while making sure that they do not include harmful contaminants..  There have been documented examples of patients being severely injured by unregulated and inadequately characterized products. For example, in 2017 three Florida women were blinded by an unauthorized product.  Dr. George Daley, a stem cell expert and the Dean of Harvard Medical School, described the clinic operators as “charlatans peddling the modern equivalent of snake oil.”

To receive FDA authorization, detailed scientific data and well controlled clinical data are required to ensure safety and a demonstration that  the product is safe has the potential to improve or resolve the patient’s disease condition.

While it seems both important and self-evident that stem cell products be safe and effective and supported by evidence they can impact the patient’s disease condition, that doesn’t always happen. Unfortunately, too many patients have experienced unnecessary medical risks and financial harm from unauthorized treatments. CIRM applauds the FDA for taking additional steps to advance regenerative medicine products where the clinical benefits of such therapies outweigh any potential harms.