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.

Making the list of people to follow

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If you are walking down the street on a dark night, being followed is not necessarily something you want. But if you are online, having someone follow you is almost always a positive thing. And when that person is Dr. Paul Knoepfler it’s most definitely a plus.

Paul is a stem cell scientist at UC Davis (full disclosure, we have funded some of his work). He’s also one of the longest-running and most active bloggers about regenerative medicine and an ever-present presence on Twitter. His blog is always a great read and, for those of us without a science background, easy to follow and understand.

Dr. Paul Knoepfler, UC Davis: Photo courtesy UC Davis

That’s why it’s quite an honor that Paul has listed the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine’s as one of the 50 Influencers on stem cells to follow on Twitter.

Paul says this does not necessarily mean the most influential in the field of research because many researchers – such as Nobel Prize winner Dr. Shinya Yamanaka – don’t use Twitter. He says in making the list he looked for a few key elements.

“I particularly appreciate those accounts that include a mix of info, news, and opinion with original content or opinions of their own too.

“I emphasized inclusion of those accounts who regularly tweet. Also, I aimed for a good mixture of accounts across the globe, not just in the U.S. I also included stem cell policy researchers and bioethicists.”

“I picked this list of 50… for 2022 based simply on my impressions of their influence or because they do interesting tweets and/or have a fresh perspective on things, not strictly based on metrics.”

Whatever the reason, we’re delighted, and honored to be on Paul’s list.

And if you would like to see why we made the ’50 to Follow list’, then follow us on Twitter

Promoting stem cell therapies, racial justice and fish breeding

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Jan Nolta, PhD, in her lab at UC Davis; Photo courtesy UC Davis

Working at CIRM you get to meet many remarkable people and Dr. Jan Nolta certainly falls into that category. Jan is the Director of the Stem Cell Program at UC Davis School of Medicine. She also directs the Institute for Regenerative Cures and is scientific director of both the Good Manufacturing Practice clean room facility at UC Davis and the California Umbilical Cord Blood Collection Program.

As if that wasn’t enough Jan is part of the team helping guide UC Davis’ efforts to expand its commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion using a variety of methods including telemedicine, to reach out into rural and remote communities.

She is on the Board of several enterprises, is the editor of the journal Stem Cells and, in her copious spare time, has dozens of aquariums and is helping save endangered species.

So, it’s no wonder we wanted to chat to her about her work and find out what makes her tick. Oh, and what rock bands she really likes. You might be surprised!

That’s why Jan is the guest on the latest edition of our podcast ‘Talking ‘Bout (re)Generation’.

I hope you enjoy it.

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. 

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.