Antibody effective in cure for rare blood disorders

3D illustration of an antibody binding to a designated target.
Illustration created by Audra Geras.

A variety of diseases can be traced to a simple root cause: problems in the bone marrow. The bone marrow contains specialized stem cells known as hematopoietic stem cells (HSCs) that give rise to different types of blood cells. As mentioned in a previous blog about Sickle Cell Disease (SCD), one problem that can occur is the production of “sickle like” red blood cells. In blood cancers like leukemia, there is an uncontrollable production of abnormal white blood cells. Another condition, known as myelodysplastic syndromes (MDS), are a group of cancers in which immature blood cells in the bone marrow do not mature and therefore do not become healthy blood cells.

For diseases that originate in the bone marrow, one treatment involves introducing healthy HSCs from a donor or gene therapy. However, before this type of treatment can take place, all of the problematic HSCs must be eliminated from the patient’s body. This process, known as pre-treatment, involves a combination of chemotherapy and radiation, which can be extremely toxic and life threatening. There are some patients whose condition has progressed to the point where their bodies are not strong enough to withstand pre-treatment. Additionally, there are long-term side effects that chemotherapy and radiation can have on infant children that are discussed in a previous blog about pediatric brain cancer.

Could there be a targeted, non-toxic approach to eliminating unwanted HSCs that can be used in combination with stem cell therapies? Researchers at Stanford say yes and have very promising results to back up their claim.

Dr. Judith Shizuru and her team at Stanford University have developed an antibody that can eliminate problematic blood forming stem cells safely and efficiently. The antibody is able to identify a protein on HSCs and bind to it. Once it is bound, the protein is unable to function, effectively removing the problematic blood forming stem cells.

Dr. Shizuru is the senior author of a study published online on February 11th, 2019 in Blood that was conducted in mice and focused on MDS. The results were very promising, demonstrating that the antibody successfully depleted human MDS cells and aided transplantation of normal human HSCs in the MDS mouse model.

This proof of concept holds promise for MDS as well as other disease conditions. In a public release from Stanford Medicine, Dr. Shizuru is quoted as saying, “A treatment that specifically targets only blood-forming stem cells would allow us to potentially cure people with diseases as varied as sickle cell disease, thalassemia, autoimmune disorders and other blood disorders…We are very hopeful that this body of research is going to have a positive impact on patients by allowing better depletion of diseased cells and engraftment of healthy cells.”

The research mentioned was partially funded by us at CIRM. Additionally, we recently awarded a $3.7 million dollar grant to use the same antibody in a human clinical trial for the so-called “bubble baby disease”, which is also known as severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID). You can read more about that award on a previous blog post linked here.

Stories that caught our eye: National Geographic takes a deep dive into iPS cells; Japanese researchers start iPS cell clinical trial for spinal cord injury; and do high fat diets increase your risk of colorectal cancer

Can cell therapy beat the most difficult diseases?

That’s the question posed in a headline in National Geographic. The answer; maybe, but it is going to take time and money.

The article focuses on the use of iPS cells, the man-made equivalent of embryonic stem cells that can be turned into any kind of cell or tissue in the body. The reporter interviews Kemal Malik, the member of the Board of Management for pharmaceutical giant Bayer who is responsible for innovation. When it comes to iPS cells, it’s clear Malik is a true believer in their potential.

“Because every cell in our bodies can be produced from a stem cell, the applicability of cell therapy is vast. iPSC technology has the potential to tackle some of the most challenging diseases on the planet.”

But he also acknowledges that the field faces some daunting challenges, including:

  • How to manufacture the cells on a large scale without sacrificing quality and purity
  • How do you create products that have a stable shelf life and can be stored until needed?
  • How do you handle immune reactions if you are giving these cells to patients?

Nonetheless, Malik remains confident we can overcome those challenges and realize the full potential of these cells.

“I believe human beings are on the cusp of the next big wave of pharmaceutical innovation. The use of living cells to make people better.”

As if to prove Malik right there was also news this week that researchers at Japan’s Keio University have been given permission to start a clinical trial using iPS cells to treat people with spinal cord injuries. This would be the first of its kind anywhere in the world.

Japan launches iPSC clinical trial for spinal cord injury

An article in Biospace says that the researchers plan to treat four patients who have suffered varying degrees of paralysis due to a spinal cord injury.  They will take cells from the patients and, using the iPS method, turn them into the kind of nerve cells found in the spinal cord, and then transplant two million of them back into the patient. The hope is that this will create new connections that restore movement and feeling in the individuals.

This trial is expected to start sometime this summer.

CIRM has already funded a first-of-its-kind clinical trial for spinal cord injury with Asterias Biotherapeutics. That clinical trial used embryonic stem cells turned into oligodendrocyte progenitor cells – which develop into cells that support and protect nerve cells in the central nervous system. We blogged about the encouraging results from that trial here.

High fat diet drives colorectal cancer

Finally today, researchers at Salk have uncovered a possible cause to the rise in colorectal cancer deaths among people under the age of 55; eating too much high fat food.

Our digestive system works hard to break down the foods we eat and one way it does that is by using bile acids. Those acids don’t just break down the food, however, they also break down the lining of our intestines. Fortunately, our gut has a steady supply of stem cells that can repair and replace that lining. Unfortunately, at least according to the team from Salk, mutations in these stem cells can lead to colorectal cancer.

The study, published in the journal Cell, shows that bile acids affect a protein called FXR that is responsible for ensuring that gut stem cells produce a steady supply of new lining for the gut wall. When someone eats a high fat diet it upsets the balance of bile acids, starting a cascade of events that help cancer develop and grow.

In a news release Annette Atkins, a co-author of the study, says there is a strong connection between bile acid and cancer growth:

“We knew that high-fat diets and bile acids were both risk factors for cancer, but we weren’t expecting to find they were both affecting FXR in intestinal stem cells.”

So next time you are thinking about having that double bacon cheese burger for lunch, you might go for the salad instead. Your gut will thank you. And it might just save your life.

CIRM Invests in Chemotherapy-Free Approach to Rare But Deadly Childhood Disease

David Vetter, boy diagnosed with SCID

Imagine being told that your seemingly healthy newborn baby has a life-threatening disease. In a moment your whole world is turned upside down. That’s the reality for families with a child diagnosed with severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID). Children with SCID lack a functioning immune system so even a simple cold can prove fatal. Today the governing Board of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) awarded $3.7 million to develop a new approach that could help these children.

The funding will enable Stanford’s Dr. Judith Shizuru to complete an earlier CIRM-funded Phase 1 clinical trial using a chemotherapy-free transplant procedure for SCID.

Dr. Judy Shizuru: Photo courtesy Stanford University

The goal of the project is to replace SCID patients’ dysfunctional immune cells with healthy ones using a safer form of bone marrow transplant (BMT). Current BMT procedures use toxic chemotherapy to make space in the bone marrow for the healthy transplanted stem cells to take root and multiply. The Stanford team is testing a safe, non-toxic monoclonal antibody that targets and removes the defective blood forming stem cellsin order to promote the engraftment of the transplanted stem cells in the patient. 

The funding is contingent on Dr. Shizuru raising $1.7 million in co-funding by May 1 of this year. 

“This research highlights two of the things CIRM was created to do,” says Maria T. Millan, MD, President & CEO of CIRM. “We fund projects affecting small numbers of patients, something many organizations or companies aren’t willing to do, and we follow those projects from the bench to the bedside, supporting them every step along the way.”

Early testing has shown promise in helping patients and it’s hoped that if this approach is successful in children with SCID it may also open up similar BMT therapies for patients with other auto-immune diseases such as multiple sclerosis, lupus or diabetes.

Major league baseball star and his wife turn to IVF to conceive child free of Huntington’s Disease

Joe Smith, pitcher for the Houston Astros, and his wife, sports reporter Allie LaForce. Smith’s family carries the gene for Huntington’s Disease. Photo courtesy of Huntington’s Disease Society for America website.

For many couples, one of the most monumental moments in life is the decision made to conceive a child together and start a family. The usual questions that come to mind typically relate to simple matters such as potential baby names, diapers, clothes, pacifiers, cribs, blankets, and stuffed animals. New parents will also think about what customs, languages, and set of principles they want to pass along to their child. But what if there was something they didn’t want to pass along to their child? What if there was a 50/50 chance of unintentionally passing along a debilitating genetic condition? For Houston Astros pitcher Joe Smith and his wife, sports reporter Allie LaForce, this situation was a devastating reality.

Joe’s grandmother and mother were both diagnosed with Huntington’s Disease (HD), so he has seen first hand the debilitating effects of this condition. HD is a genetically inherited, neurological condition that causes the progressive breakdown of nerve cells in the brain and has no known cure. It gradually deteriorates a person’s mental and physical abilities, making it difficult to recall things, walk, or even speak. According to statistics from Huntington’s Disease Society for America (HDSA), every child of a parent with HD has a 50/50 chance of inheriting the disease. Furthermore, there are approximately 30,000 Americans living with HD and 200,000 at-risk of inheriting the condition. It is because of these high risks that Joe and Allie have decided to conceive a child with the aid of in-vitro fertilization (IVF).

Through IVF, an ovum and sperm are combined outside the body to create a fertilized egg. This egg can be implanted into a woman’s uterus, allowing it to grow and develop. However, there is additional technology known as preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) that can be used alongside IVF. With PGD-IVF, the fertilized eggs can be genetically tested before implantation. In Joe and Allie’s instance, PGD-IVF can be used to screen for HD, ensuring that the fertilized egg does not carry the disease prior to implantation.

In an interview with Morgan Radford on The Today Show, Joe and Allie discuss in detail how HD has impacted their loved ones and their decision to use PGD-IVF. The interview is available here.

In the interview, Joe Smith is quoted as saying, “I’m just taking out a 50/50 chance…I just want that [HD] gone.”

The California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) has recently approved a $6 million grant geared towards HD. This funding is for late stage testing needed to apply to the US Food and Drug Administration for permission to start a clinical trial in people. You can read more details about this award from a previous blog post here.

A new stem cell derived tool for studying brain diseases

Sergiu Pasca’s three-dimensional culture makes it possible to watch how three different brain-cell types – oligodendrocytes (green), neurons (magenta) and astrocytes (blue) – interact in a dish as they do in a developing human  brain.
Courtesy of the Pasca lab

Neurological diseases are among the most daunting diagnoses for a patient to receive, because they impact how the individual interacts with their surroundings. Central to our ability to provide better treatment options for these patients, is scientists’ capability to understand the biological factors that influence disease development and progression. Researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine have made an important step in providing neuroscientists a better tool to understand the brain.

While animal models are excellent systems to study the intricacies of different diseases, the ability to translate any findings to humans is relatively limited. The next best option is to study human stem cell derived tissues in the laboratory. The problem with the currently available laboratory-derived systems for studying the brain, however, is the limited longevity and diversity of neuronal cell types. Dr. Sergiu Pasca’s team was able to overcome these hurdles, as detailed in their study, published in the journal Nature Neuroscience.

A new approach

Specifically, Dr. Pasca’s group developed a method to differentiate or transform skin derived human induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs – which are capable of becoming any cell type) into brain-like structures that mimic how oligodendrocytes mature during brain development. Oligodendrocytes are most well known for their role in myelinating neurons, in effect creating a protective sheath around the cell to protect its ability to communicate with other brain cells. Studying oligodendrocytes in culture systems is challenging because they arise later in brain development, and it is difficult to generate and maintain them with other cell types found in the brain.

These scientists circumvented this problem by using a unique combination of growth factors and nutrients to culture the oligodendrocytes, and found that they behaved very similarly to oligodendrocytes isolated from humans. Most excitingly, they observed that the stem cell-derived oligodendrocytes were able to myelinate other neurons in the culture system. Therefore they were both physically and functionally similar to human oligodendrocytes.

Importantly, the scientists were also able to generate astrocytes alongside the oligodendrocytes. Astrocytes perform many important functions such as providing essential nutrients and directing the electrical signals that help cells in the brain communicate with each other. In a press release, Dr. Pasca explains the importance of generating multiple cell types in this in vitro system:

“We now have multiple cell types interacting in one single culture. This permits us to look close-up at how the main cellular players in the human brain are talking to each other.”

This in vitro or laboratory-developed system has the potential to help scientists better understand oligodendrocytes in the context of diseases such as multiple sclerosis and cerebral palsy, both of which stem from improper myelination of brain nerve cells.

This work was partially supported by a CIRM grant.

Breakthrough for type 1 diabetes: scientist discovers how to grow insulin-producing cells

Matthias Hebrok, PhD, senior author of new study that transformed human stem cells into mature, insulin-producing cells. Photo courtesy of UCSF.

More often than not, people don’t really think about their blood sugar levels before sitting down to enjoy a delicious meal, partake in a tasty dessert, or go out for a bicycle ride. But for type 1 diabetes (T1D) patients, every minute and every action revolves around the readout from a glucose meter, a device used to measure blood sugar levels.

Normally, the pancreas contains beta cells that produce insulin in order to maintain blood sugar levels in the normal range. Unfortunately, those with T1D have an immune system that destroys their own beta cells, thereby decreasing or preventing the production of insulin and in turn the regulation of blood sugar levels. Chronic spikes in blood sugar levels can lead to blindness, nerve damage, kidney failure, heart disease, stroke, and even death.

Those with T1D manage their condition by injecting themselves with insulin anywhere from two to four times a day. A light workout, slight change in diet, or even an exciting event can have a serious impact that requires a glucose meter check and an insulin injection.

There are clinical trials involving transplants of pancreatic “islets”, clusters of cells containing healthy beta cells, but these rely on pancreases from deceased donors and taking immune suppressing drugs for life.

But what if there was a way to produce healthy beta cells in a lab without the need of a transplant?

Dr. Matthias Hebrok, director of the UCSF diabetes center, and Dr. Gopika Nair, postdoctoral fellow, have discovered how to transform human stem cells into healthy, insulin producing beta cells.

In a news release written by Dr. Nicholas Weiler of UCSF, Dr. Hebrok is quoted as saying “We can now generate insulin-producing cells that look and act a lot like the pancreatic beta cells you and I have in our bodies. This is a critical step towards our goal of creating cells that could be transplanted into patients with diabetes.”

For the longest time, scientists could only produce cells at an immature stage that were unable to respond to blood sugar levels and secrete insulin properly. Dr. Hebrok and Dr. Nair discovered that mimicking the “islet” formation of cells in the pancreas helped the cells mature. These cells were then transplanted into mice and found that they were fully functional, producing insulin and responding to changes blood sugar levels.

Dr. Hebrok’s team is already in collaboration with various colleagues to make these cells transplantable into patients.

Gopika Nair, PhD, postdoctoral fellow that led the study for transforming human stem cells into mature, insulin-producing cells. Photo courtesy of UCSF.

Dr. Nair in the article is also quoted as saying “Current therapeutics like insulin injections only treat the symptoms of the disease. Our work points to several exciting avenues to finally finding a cure.”

“We’re finally able to move forward on a number of different fronts that were previously closed to us,” Hebrok added. “The possibilities seem endless.” 

Dr. Hebrok, who is also a member of the CIRM funded UCSF Eli and Edythe Broad Center of Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Research, was senior author of the new study, which was published February 1, 2019 in Nature Cell Biology.

CIRM has funded three separate human clinical trials for T1D that total approximately $37.8 million in awards. Two of these trials are being conducted by ViaCyte, Inc. and the third trial is being conducted by Caladrius Biosciences.

Tips on how to be a great Patient Advocate from three of the best Advocates around

No one sets out to be a Patient Advocate. It’s something that you become because of something that happens to you. Usually it’s because you, or  a loved one or a friend, becomes ill and you want to help find a treatment. Whatever the reason, it is the start of a journey that often throws you into a world that you know nothing about: a world of research studies and scientific terminology, of talking to and trying to understand medical professionals, and of watching someone you love struggle.

It’s a tough, demanding, sometimes heart-breaking role. But it’s also one of the most important roles you can ever take on. Patient Advocates not only care for people afflicted with a particular disease or disorder, they help them navigate a new and scary world, they help raise money for research, and push researchers to work harder to find new treatments, maybe even cures. And they remind all of us that in the midst of pain and suffering the human touch, a simple kindness is the most important gift of all.

But what makes a great Patient Advocate, what skills do you need and how can you get them? At CIRM we are blessed to have some of the most amazing Patient Advocates you will ever meet. So we asked three of them to join us for a special Facebook Live “Ask the Stem Cell Team” event to share their knowledge, experience and expertise with you.

The Facebook Live “Ask the Stem Cell Team About Patient Advocacy” event will be on Thursday, March 14th from noon till 1pm PST.

The three experts are:

Gigi McMillan

Gigi McMillan became a Patient Advocate when her 5-year-old son was diagnosed with a brain tumor. That has led her to helping develop support systems for families going through the same ordeal, to help researchers develop appropriate consent processes and to campaign for the rights of children and their families in research.

Adrienne Shapiro

Adrienne Shapiro comes from a family with a long history of Sickle Cell Disease (SCD) and has fought to help people with SCD have access to compassionate care. She is the co-founder of Axis Advocacy, an organization dedicated to raising awareness about SCD and support for those with it. In addition she is now on the FDA’s Patient Engagement Collaborative, a new group helping the FDA ensure the voice of the patient is heard at the highest levels.

David Higgins

David Higgins is a CIRM Board member and a Patient Advocate for Parkinson’s Disease. David has a family history of the disease and in 2011 was diagnosed with Parkinson’s. As a scientist and advocate he has championed research into the disease and strived to raise greater awareness about the needs of people with Parkinson’s.

Please join us for our Facebook Live event on Patient Advocates on Thursday, March 14 from noon till 1pm and feel free to share information about the event with anyone you think would be interested.

Also, make sure to “like” our FaceBook page before the event to receive a notification when we’ve gone live for this and future events. If you miss the broadcast, not to worry. We’ll be posting it on our Facebook video page, our website, and YouTube channel shortly afterwards.

We want to answer your most pressing questions, so please email them directly to us beforehand at info@cirm.ca.gov.

Rare Disease Gets Big Boost from California’s Stem Cell Agency

UC Irvine’s Dr. Leslie Thompson and patient advocate Frances Saldana after the CIRM Board vote to approve funding for Huntington’s disease

If you were looking for a poster child for an unmet medical need Huntington’s disease (HD) would be high on the list. It’s a devastating disease that attacks the brain, steadily destroying the ability to control body movement and speech. It impairs thinking and often leads to dementia. It’s always fatal and there are no treatments that can stop or reverse the course of the disease. Today the Board of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) voted to support a project that shows promise in changing that.

The Board voted to approve $6 million to enable Dr. Leslie Thompson and her team at the University of California, Irvine to do the late stage testing needed to apply to the US Food and Drug Administration for permission to start a clinical trial in people. The therapy involves transplanting stem cells that have been turned into neural stem cells which secrete a molecule called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which has been shown to promote the growth and improve the function of brain cells. The goal is to slow down the progression of this debilitating disease.

“Huntington’s disease affects around 30,000 people in the US and children born to parents with HD have a 50/50 chance of getting the disease themselves,” says Dr. Maria T. Millan, the President and CEO of CIRM. “We have supported Dr. Thompson’s work for a number of years, reflecting our commitment to helping the best science advance, and are hopeful today’s vote will take it a crucial step closer to a clinical trial.”

Another project supported by CIRM at an earlier stage of research was also given funding for a clinical trial.

The Board approved almost $12 million to support a clinical trial to help people undergoing a kidney transplant. Right now, there are around 100,000 people in the US waiting to get a kidney transplant. Even those fortunate enough to get one face a lifetime on immunosuppressive drugs to stop the body rejecting the new organ, drugs that increase the risk for infection, heart disease and diabetes.  

Dr. Everett Meyer, and his team at Stanford University, will use a combination of healthy donor stem cells and the patient’s own regulatory T cells (Tregs), to train the patient’s immune system to accept the transplanted kidney and eliminate the need for immunosuppressive drugs.

The initial group targeted in this clinical trial are people with what are called HLA-mismatched kidneys. This is where the donor and recipient do not share the same human leukocyte antigens (HLAs), proteins located on the surface of immune cells and other cells in the body. Around 50 percent of patients with HLA-mismatched transplants experience rejection of the organ.

In his application Dr. Meyer said they have a simple goal: “The goal is “one kidney for life” off drugs with safety for all patients. The overall health status of patients off immunosuppressive drugs will improve due to reduction in side effects associated with these drugs, and due to reduced graft loss afforded by tolerance induction that will prevent chronic rejection.”

Gene therapy and blood stem cells cure sickle cell disease patients

Sickle-shaped blood cells. The cells become lodged in blood vessels, causing strokes or excruciating pain as blood stops flowing. Photo courtesy of Omikron/Science Source

Blood is the lifeline of the body. The continuous, unimpeded circulation of blood maintains oxygen flow throughout the body and enables us to carry out our everyday activities. Unfortunately, there are individuals whose own bodies are in a constant battle that prevents this from occurring seamlessly. They have something known as sickle cell disease (SCD), an inherited condition caused by a mutation in a single gene. Rather than producing normal, circular red blood cells, their bodies produce sickle shaped cells (hence the name) that can become lodged in blood vessels, preventing blood flow. The lack of blood flow can cause agonizing pain, known as crises, as well as strokes. Chronic crises can cause organ damage, which can eventually lead to organ failure. Additionally, since the misshapen cells don’t survive long in the body, people with SCD have a greater risk of being severely anemic and are more prone to infections. Monthly blood transfusions are often needed to help temporarily alleviate symptoms. Due to the debilitating nature of SCD, important aspects of everyday life such as employment and health insurance can be extremely challenging to find and maintain.

An estimated 100,000 people in the United States are living with SCD. Around the world, about 300,000 infants are born with the condition each year, a statistic that will increase to 400,000 by 2050 according to one study. Many people with SCD do not live past the age of 50. It is most prevalent in individuals with sub-Saharan African descent followed by people of Hispanic descent. Experts have stated that advances in treatment have been limited in part because SCD is concentrated in poorer minority communities.

Despite these grim statistics and prognosis, there is hope.

The New York Times and Boston Herald recently released featured articles that tell the personal stories of patients enrolled in a clinical trial conducted by bluebird bio. The trial uses gene therapy in combination with hematopoietic (blood) stem cells (HSCs) to give rise to normal red blood cells in SCD patients.

Here are the stories of these patients. To read the full New York Times article, click here. For the Boston Herald article, click here.

Brothers, Emmanuel “Manny” 21 and Aiden Johnson 7 at their home in Brockton, Massachusetts. Both brothers were born with sickle cell disease. Photo courtesy of Matt Stone for MediaNews Group/Boston Herald

Emmanuel “Manny” Johnson was the very first patient in the SCD trial. He was motivated to participate in the trial not just for himself but for his younger brother Aiden Johnson, who was also born with SCD. Manny has a tattoo with Aiden’s name written inside a red sickle cell awareness ribbon.

In the article Manny is quoted as saying “It’s not only that we share the same blood disease, it’s like I have to do better for him.”

Since receiving the treatment, Manny’s SCD symptoms have disappeared.

Brandon Williams received the stem cell gene therapy to replace sickle cells with healthy red blood cells. The tattoo on his right forearm is in honor of his sister, Britney, who died of sickle cell disease. Photo courtesy of Alyssa Schukar for The New York Times

For Brandon Williams of Chicago, the story of SCD is a very personal one. At just 21 years old, Brandon had suffered four strokes by the time he turned 18. His older sister, Britney Williams, died of sickle cell disease at the age of 22. Brandon was devastated and felt that his own life could end at any moment. He was then told about the SCD trial and decided to enroll. Following the treatment, his symptoms have vanished along with the pain and fear inflicted by the disease.

Carmen Duncan participated in the stem cell gene therapy trial and no longer has sickle-cell symptoms. She wants to join the military, something that wasn’t an option until now. Photo courtesy of Sean Rayford for The New York Times

The NY Times piece also profiles Carmen Duncan, a 20 year old from Charleston, South Carolina. She had her spleen removed when she was just two years old as a result of complications form SCD. Duncan spent a large portion of her childhood in hospitals, coping with the pain in her arms and legs from blocked blood vessels. She enrolled in the SCD trial as well and she no longer has any signs of SCD. Duncan had aspirations to join the military but was unable to because of her condition. Now that she is symptom free, she plans to enlist.

This SCD clinical trial has multiple trial sites across the US, one which is the UCSF Alpha Stem Cell Clinic , a CIRM funded clinic specializing in the delivery of stem cell clinical trials to patients. CIRM awarded a $7,999,999 grant to help establish this site.

Media shine a spotlight on dodgy stem cell clinics

A doctor collects fat from a patient’’s back as part of an experimental stem cell procedure in Beverly Hills, Calif. on Dec. 5, 2014. (Raquel Maria Dillon / Associated Press)

For several years now, we have been trying to raise awareness about the risks posed by clinics offering unproven or unapproved stem cell therapies. At times it felt as if we were yelling into the wind, that few people were listening. But that’s slowly changing. A growing number of TV stations and newspapers are picking up the message and warning their readers and viewers. It’s a warning that is getting national exposure.

Why are we concerned about these clinics? Well, they claim their therapies, which usually involve the patient’s own fat or blood cells, can cure everything from arthritis to Alzheimer’s. However, they offer no scientific proof, have no studies to back up their claims and charge patients thousands, sometimes tens of thousands of dollars.

In the LA Times, for example, reporter Usha Lee McFarling, wrote an article headline “California has gone crazy for sketchy stem cell treatments”. In it she writes about the claims made by these clinics and the dangers they pose:

“If it sounds too good to be true, it is. There is no good scientific evidence the pricey treatments work, and there is growing evidence that some are dangerous, causing blindness, tumors and paralysis. Medical associations, the federal government and even Consumer Reports have all issued stern warnings to patients about the clinics.”

In Denver, the ABC TV station recently did an in-depth interview with a local doctor who is trying to get Colorado state legislators to take legal action against stem cell clinics making these kinds of unsupported claims.

Chris Centeno of the Centeno-Schultz Clinic, who’s specialized in regenerative medicine and research for more than a decade, said too many people are simply being scammed.

“It’s really out of control,” he told the station.

ABC7 did a series of reports last year on the problem and that may be prompting this push for a law warning consumers about the dangers posed by these unregulated treatments which are advertised heavily online, on TV and in print.

In California there is already one law on the books attempting to warn consumers about these clinics. CIRM worked with State Senator Ed Hernandez to get that passed (you can read about that here) and we are continuing to support even stronger measures.

And the NBC TV station in San Diego recently reported on the rise of stem cell clinics around the US, a story that was picked up by the networks and run on the NBC Today Show.

One of the critical elements in helping raise awareness about the issue has been the work done by Paul Knoepfler and Leigh Turner in identifying how many of these clinics there are around the US. Their report, published in the journal Cell Stem Cell, was the first to show how big the problem is. It attracted national attention and triggered many of the reports that followed.

It is clear momentum is building and we hope to build on that even further. Obviously, the best solution would be to have the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) crack down on these clinics, and in some cases they have. But the FDA lacks the manpower to tackle all of them.

That’s where the role of the media is so important. By doing stories like these and raising awareness about the risks these clinics pose they can hopefully help many patients avoid treatments that will do little except make a dent in their pocket.