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.

A word from our Chair, several in fact

In 2005, the New Oxford American Dictionary named “podcast” its word of the year. At the time a podcast was something many had heard of but not that many actually tuned in to. My how times have changed. Now there are some two million podcasts to chose from, at least according to the New York Times, and who am I to question them.

Yesterday, in the same New York Times, TV writer Margaret Lyons, wrote about how the pandemic helped turn her from TV to podcasts: “Much in the way I grew to prefer an old-fashioned phone call to a video chat, podcasts, not television, became my go-to medium in quarantine. With their shorter lead times and intimate production values, they felt more immediate and more relevant than ever before.”

I mention this because an old colleague of ours at CIRM, Neil Littman, has just launched his own podcast and the first guest on it was Jonathan Thomas, Chair of the CIRM Board. Their conversation ranged from CIRM’s past to the future of the regenerative field as a whole, with a few interesting diversions along the way. It’s fun listening. And as Margaret Lyons said it might be more immediate and more relevant than ever before.

Tipping our hat to the good guys (& gals)

A search on Google using the term “stem cell blogs” quickly produces a host of sites offering treatments for everything from ankle, hip and knee problems, to Parkinson’s disease and asthma. Amazingly the therapies for those very different conditions all use the same kind of cells produced in the same way. It’s like magic. Sadly, it’s magic that is less hocus pocus and more bogus bogus.

The good news is there are blogs out there (besides us, of course) that do offer good, accurate, reliable information about stem cells. The people behind them are not in this to make a quick buck selling snake oil. They are in this to educate, inform, engage and enlighten people about what stem cells can, and cannot do.

So, here’s some of our favorites.

The Niche

This blog has just undergone a face lift and is now as colorful and easy to read as it is informative. It bills itself as the longest running stem cell blog around. It’s run by UC Davis stem cell biologist Dr. Paul Knoepfler – full disclosure, we have funded some of Paul’s work – and it’s a constant source of amazement to me how Paul manages to run a busy research lab and post regular updates on his blog.

The power of The Niche is that it’s easy for non-science folk – like me – to read and understand without having to do a deep dive into Google search or Wikipedia. It’s well written, informative and often very witty. If you are looking for a good website to check whether some news about stem cells is real or suspect, this is a great place to start.

Stem Cell Battles

This site is run by another old friend of CIRM’s, Don Reed. Don has written extensively about stem cell research in general, and CIRM in particular. His motivation to do this work is clear. Don says he’s not a doctor or scientist, he’s something much simpler:

“No. I am just a father fighting for his paralyzed son, and the only way to fix him is to advance cures for everyone. Also, my mother died of breast cancer, my sister from leukemia, and I myself am a prostate cancer survivor. So, I have some very personal reasons to support the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine and to want state funding for stem cell and other regenerative medicine research to continue in California!”

The power of Don’s writing is that he always tells human stories, real tales about real people. He makes everything he does accessible, memorable and often very funny. If I’m looking for ways to explain something complex and translate it into everyday English, I’ll often look at Don’s work, he knows how to talk to people about the science without having their eyes cloud over.

A Closer Look at Stem Cells

This is published by the International Society for Stem Cell Research (ISSCR), the leading professional organization for stem cell scientists. You might expect a blog from such a science-focused organization to be heavy going for the ordinary person, but you’d be wrong.

A Closer Look at Stem Cells is specifically designed for people who want to learn more about stem cells but don’t have the time to get a PhD. They have sections explaining what stem cells are, what they can and can’t do, even a glossary explaining different terms used in the field (I used to think the Islets of Langerhans were small islands off the coast of Germany till I went to this site).

One of the best, and most important, parts of the site is the section on clinical trials, helping people understand what’s involved in these trials and the kinds of things you need to consider before signing up for one.

Signals

Of course, the US doesn’t have a monopoly on stem cell research and that’s reflected in the next two choices. One is the Signals Blog from our friends to the north in Canada. This is an easy-to-read site that describes itself as the “Insiders perspective on the world of stem cells and regenerative medicine.” The ‘Categories ‘dropdown menu allows you to choose what you want to read, and it gives you lots of options from the latest news to a special section for patients, even a section on ethical and legal issues. 

EuroStemCell

As you may have guessed from the title this is by our chums across the pond in Europe. They lay out their mission on page one saying they want to help people make sense of stem cells:

“As a network of scientists and academics, we provide independent, expert-reviewed information and road-tested educational resources on stem cells and their impact on society. We also work with people affected by conditions, educators, regulators, media, healthcare professionals and policymakers to foster engagement and develop material that meets their needs.”

True to their word they have great information on the latest research, broken down by different types of disease, different types of stem cell etc. And like CIRM they also have some great educational resources for teachers to use in the classroom.

Explaining COVID can be a pitch

When people ask me what I do at CIRM I sometimes half-jokingly tell them that I’m the official translator: I take complex science and turn it into everyday English. That’s important. The taxpayers of California have a right to know how their money is being spent and how it might benefit them. But that message can be even more effective when it comes from the scientists themselves.

Recently we asked some of the scientists we are funding to do research into COVID-19 to record what’s called an “elevator pitch”. This is where they prepare an explanation of their work that is in ordinary English and is quite short, short enough to say it to someone as you ride in an elevator. Hence the name.

It sounds easy enough. But it’s not. When you are used to talking in the language of science day in and day out, suddenly switching codes to talk about your work in plain English can take some practice. Also, you have spent years, often decades, on this work and to have to explain it in around one minute is no easy thing.

But our researchers rose to the challenge. Here’s some examples of just how well they did.

Meet the people who are changing the future

Kristin MacDonald

Every so often you hear a story and your first reaction is “oh, I have to share this with someone, anyone, everyone.” That’s what happened to me the other day.

I was talking with Kristin MacDonald, an amazing woman, a fierce patient advocate and someone who took part in a CIRM-funded clinical trial to treat retinitis pigmentosa (RP). The disease had destroyed Kristin’s vision and she was hoping the therapy, pioneered by jCyte, would help her. Kristin, being a bit of a pioneer herself, was the first person to test the therapy in the U.S.

Anyway, Kristin was doing a Zoom presentation and wanted to look her best so she asked a friend to come over and do her hair and makeup. The woman she asked, was Rosie Barrero, another patient in that RP clinical trial. Not so very long ago Rosie was legally blind. Now, here she was helping do her friend’s hair and makeup. And doing it beautifully too.

That’s when you know the treatment works. At least for Rosie.

There are many other stories to be heard – from patients and patient advocates, from researchers who develop therapies to the doctors who deliver them. – at our CIRM 2020 Grantee Meeting on next Monday September 14th Tuesday & September 15th.

It’s two full days of presentations and discussions on everything from heart disease and cancer, to COVID-19, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and spina bifida. Here’s a link to the Eventbrite page where you can find out more about the event and also register to be part of it.

Like pretty much everything these days it’s a virtual event so you’ll be able to join in from the comfort of your kitchen, living room, even the backyard.

And it’s free!

You can join us for all two days or just one session on one day. The choice is yours. And feel free to tell your friends or anyone else you think might be interested.

We hope to see you there.

Don’t believe everything you read

(PRNewsfoto/Deseret News)

The Deseret News is Utah’s oldest continuously published daily newspaper. It has a big readership too, with the largest Sunday circulation in the state and the second largest daily circulation. That’s why when they publish paid advertisements that look like serious news articles it can be misleading, even worse.

This week the Deseret News (that’s not a misspelling by the way, the name is taken from the word for honeybee in the Book of Mormon) ran an advertisement written by the East West Health Clinic. The advertisement  is about regenerative medicine and its ability to help repair damaged knee, hip and shoulder joints. It quotes from some well-regarded scientific sources such as WebMD and the National Health Interview Survey.

They also quote CIRM. Here’s what they say:

“In theory, there’s no limit to the types of diseases that could be treated with stem cell research,” the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) explains. CIRM posits that stem cell therapy could be used to “replace virtually any tissue or organ that is injured or diseased.”

That’s from a page on our website that talks about the potential of stem cell research. And it’s all true. But then the advertisement switches quickly, and rather subtly, to talking about what the clinic is doing. And that’s where things get murky.

East West Health offers therapies using umbilical and cord blood that they claim can treat a wide range of diseases and disorders from tendonitis to arthritis and suggest they might even help people with Alzheimer’s and dementia. But none of these have been proven in an FDA-sanctioned clinical trial or approved by the FDA. In fact, if you scroll down to the bottom of the website you find this statement.

*These statements have not been evaluated by the FDA*

And they also say that “Individual results may vary”.

I bet they do.

There are many clinics around the US that claim that stem cells have almost magical powers to heal. They don’t.

What stem cells do have is enormous potential. That’s why we invest in solid, scientifically rigorous research to try and harness that potential and bring it to patients in need. But that takes years of work, meticulous testing in the lab long before it ever is tried in people. It takes working with the FDA to get their support in starting a clinical trial to show that the therapy is both safe and effective.

CIRM has long promoted the importance of the Three R’s, making sure research is regulated, reliable and reputable. We want to help advance promising regenerative medicine therapies and products while protecting patients from the risks posed by unproven interventions.

That’s why we have a commitment to only funding the best science, work that has undergone rigorous peer review. That’s why we collaborate with expert advisors, ensure all projects we fund are in alignment with FDA rules and regulations and that meet the highest standards set by the organizations like the National Institutes of Health.

There are no short cuts. No easy ways to just stick cells in someone and tell them they are good to go.

That’s why when we see advertisements like the one that ran in The Deseret News it concerns us, because people will see our name and think we support the work being done by the people who wrote the piece. We don’t. Quite the opposite.

If you would like to learn more about the kinds of questions you need to ask before signing up for a clinical trial or therapy of any kind just go to our website. And if you want to see the list of clinical trials we do support, you can go here.

Perseverance: from theory to therapy. Our story over the last year – and a half

Some of the stars of our Annual Report

It’s been a long time coming. Eighteen months to be precise. Which is a peculiarly long time for an Annual Report. The world is certainly a very different place today than when we started, and yet our core mission hasn’t changed at all, except to spring into action to make our own contribution to fighting the coronavirus.

This latest CIRM Annual Reportcovers 2019 through June 30, 2020. Why? Well, as you probably know we are running out of money and could be funding our last new awards by the end of this year. So, we wanted to produce as complete a picture of our achievements as we could – keeping in mind that we might not be around to produce a report next year.

Dr. Catriona Jamieson, UC San Diego physician and researcher

It’s a pretty jam-packed report. It covers everything from the 14 new clinical trials we have funded this year, including three specifically focused on COVID-19. It looks at the extraordinary researchers that we fund and the progress they have made, and the billions of additional dollars our funding has helped leverage for California. But at the heart of it, and at the heart of everything we do, are the patients. They’re the reason we are here. They are the reason we do what we do.

Byron Jenkins, former Naval fighter pilot who battled back from his own fight with multiple myeloma

There are stories of people like Byron Jenkins who almost died from multiple myeloma but is now back leading a full, active life with his family thanks to a CIRM-funded therapy with Poseida. There is Jordan Janz, a young man who once depended on taking 56 pills a day to keep his rare disease, cystinosis, under control but is now hoping a stem cell therapy developed by Dr. Stephanie Cherqui and her team at UC San Diego will make that something of the past.

Jordan Janz and Dr. Stephanie Cherqui

These individuals are remarkable on so many levels, not the least because they were willing to be among the first people ever to try these therapies. They are pioneers in every sense of the word.

Sneha Santosh, former CIRM Bridges student and now a researcher with Novo Nordisk

There is a lot of information in the report, charting the work we have done over the last 18 months. But it’s also a celebration of everyone who made it possible, and our way of saying thank you to the people of California who gave us this incredible honor and opportunity to do this work.

We hope you enjoy it.

Why “Ask the Stem Cell Team” Remains Important

These are definitely strange, unusual and challenging times. Every day seems to bring new restrictions on what we can and should do. All, of course, in the name of protecting us and helping us avoid a potentially deadly virus. We all hope this will soon pass but we also know the bigger impact of the coronavirus is likely to linger for many months, perhaps even years.

With that in mind a few people have asked us why we are still going ahead with our Facebook Live ‘Ask the Stem Cell Team About Autism’ event this Thursday, March 19th at 12pm PDT. It’s a good question. And the answer is simple. Because there is still a need for good, thoughtful information about the potential for stem cells to help families who have a loved one with autism. And because we still need to do all we can to dispel the bad information out there and warn people about the bogus clinics offering unproven therapies.

In many ways Facebook Live is the perfect way to deliver this information. It allows us to reach out to large numbers of people without having them in the same room. We can educate not contaminate.

And we have some great experts to discuss the use of stem cells in helping people with autism.

The event features Dr. Alysson Muotri from UC San Diego. We have written about his work with stem cells for autism in the past. And CIRM’s own Associate Director for Discovery and Translation, Dr. Kelly Shepard.

But we also want you to be a part of this as well. So, join us online for the event. You can post comments and questions during the event, and we’ll do our best to answer them. Or you can send us in questions ahead of time to info@cirm.ca.gov.

If you were unable to tune in while we were live, not to worry, you you can watch it here on our Facebook page

Enabling the Best Choice for Patients: The Need for Effective Patient Navigation

Making sure patients get the treatment they need and not a “snake oil” substitute

We are at a turning point in regenerative medicine as the first wave of treatments have obtained FDA approval. But at the same time as we see the advance of scientifically rigorous research and regulated products we are also witnessing the continued proliferation of “unproven treatments.” This dueling environment can be overwhelming and distracting to individuals and families trying to manage life-threatening diseases.

How does a patient navigate this environment and get trusted and reliable information to help sort through their options?

CIRM teamed up with the CURA Foundation to organize a roundtable discussion intended to answer this question. The conversation included thought leaders involved in patient advocacy, therapy research and development, public policy and research funding. The roundtable was divided into three segments designed to discuss:

  1. Examples of state-of-the-art patient navigation systems,
  2. Policy, research and infrastructure needs required to expand navigation systems, and
  3. Communication needs for engaging patients and the broader community.

Examples of Navigation Systems:

This session was framed around the observation that patients often do not get the best medicines or treatments available for their condition. For example, in the area of cancer care there is evidence that the top 25% of cancers are not being treated optimally. Historic barriers to optimal treatment include cost pressures that may block access to treatments, lack of knowledge about the available treatments or the absence of experts in the location where the patient is being treated.  Much of the session focused on how these barriers are being overcome by partnerships between health care provides, employers and patients.

For example, new technologies such as DNA sequencing and other cell-based markers enable better diagnosis of a patient’s underlying disease. This information can be collected by a community hospital and shared with experts who work with the treating doctor to consider the best options for the patient. If patients need to access a specialty center for treatment, there are new models for the delivery of such care. Emphasis is placed on building a relationship with the patient and their family by surrounding them with a team that can address any questions that arise. The model of patient-centered care is being embraced by employers who are purchasing suites of services for their employees.

Patient advocacy groups have also supported efforts to get the best information about the patients’ underlying disease. Advocacy organizations have been building tools to connect patients with researchers with the aim of allowing secure and responsible sharing of medical information to drive the patient-centered development of new treatments. In a related initiative, the American Society of Hematology is creating a data hub for clinical trials for sickle cell disease. Collectively, these efforts are designed to accelerate new treatments by allowing critical data to be shared among researchers.

Essential Policy Infrastructure for Regenerative Medicine:

Session two dovetailed nicely with first discussion. There was continued emphasis on the need for additional evidence (data) to demonstrate that regenerative medicine treatments are having a significant effect on the patient’s disease. Various speakers echoed the need for patients in clinical trials to work with researchers to determine the benefits of treatments. Success stories with gene therapies in blood diseases were cited as proof of concept where treatments being evaluated in clinical trials are demonstrating a significant and sustained impact on diseases. Evidence of benefit is needed by both regulatory bodies that approve the treatments, such as the FDA, and by public and private payers / insurers that pay for treatments and patients that need to know the best option for their particular disease.

In addition, various speakers cited the continued proliferation of “unproven treatments” being marketed by for-profit centers. There was broad concern that the promotion of treatment where there is no evidence of effectiveness will mislead some patients and potentially harm the scientifically rigorous development of new treatments. Particularly for “stem cell” treatments, there was a desire to develop evaluation criteria that are clear and transparent to allow legitimate treatments to be distinguished from those with no evidence of effectiveness. One participant suggested there be a scorecard approach where specific treatments could be rated against specific indicators of safety, medical benefit and value in relation to alternative treatments. The idea would be to make this information widely available to patients, medical providers and the public to inform everything from medical decision making to advertising.

Communicating the Vision

The final session considered communication needs for the field of regenerative medicine. Patients and patient advocacy organizations described how they are using social media and other networking tools to share information and experiences in navigating their treatment options. Patient advocacy groups also described the challenges from providers of unproven treatments. In one case, a for profit “pop up” clinic had used the group’s videos in an attempt to legitimize their unproven treatment.

There was general consensus among the panelists that the field of regenerative medicine needs “trusted intermediaries” who can evaluate claims and help patients distinguish between high quality research and “snake oil”. These intermediaries should have the capacity to compile the most reliable evidence and utilize it to determine what options are available to patients. In addition, there needs to be shared decision making model where patients have the opportunity to explore options in an unbiased environment so they may make the best decision based on their specific needs and values.

Creating this kind of Navigation System will not be easy but the alternative is unacceptable. Too many vulnerable patients are being taken advantage of by the growing number of “predatory clinics” hawking expensive therapies that are both unproven and unapproved. We owe it to these patients to create a simple way for them to identify what are the most promising therapies, ones that have the highest chance of being both safe and effective. The roundtable discussion marked a starting point, bringing together many of the key players in the field, highlighting the key issues and beginning to identify possible solutions.