Cashing in on COVID-19

Coronavirus particles, illustration. Courtesy KTSDesign/Science Photo Library

As the coronavirus pandemic continues to spread, one of the few bright spots is how many researchers are stepping up and trying to find new ways to tackle it, to treat it and hopefully even cure it. Unfortunately, there are also those who are simply trying to cash in on it.

In the last few years the number of predatory clinics offering so-called “stem cell therapies” for everything from Alzheimer’s and multiple sclerosis to autism and arthritis has exploded in the US. The products they offer have not undergone a clinical trial to show that they work; they haven’t been approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA); they don’t have any evidence they are even safe. But that doesn’t stop them marketing these claims and it isn’t stopping some of them from now trying to cash in on the fears created by the coronavirus.

One company is hawking what it calls a rapid COVID-19 test, one that can determine if you have the virus in under ten minutes (many current tests take days to produce a result). All it takes is a few drops of blood and, from the comfort of your own home, you get to find out if you are positive for COVID-19. And best of all, it claims it is 99 percent accurate.

What could be the problem with that? A lot as it turns out.

If you go to the bottom of the page on the website marketing the test it basically says “this does not work and we’re not making any claims or are in any way responsible for any results it produces.” So much for 99 percent accurate.

It’s not the only example of this kind of shameless attempt to cash in on COVID-19. So it’s appropriate that this week the Alliance for Regenerative Medicine (ARM), issued a statement strongly condemning these attempts and the clinics behind them.

ARM warns about the growing number of “stem cell clinics” (that) are taking advantage of the “hype” around stem cells – and, in certain cases, the current concern about COVID-19 – and avoiding regulation by falsely marketing illegal and potentially harmful products to patients seeking cures.” 

These so called “therapies” or tests do more than just take money – in some cases tens of thousands of dollars – from individuals: “Public health is at risk when unscrupulous providers offer stem cell products that are unapproved, unproven and fail to adhere to established rules for good manufacturing practices. Many of these providers put patients at risk by falsely marketing the benefits of treatments, and often promoting the stem cells for conditions that are outside of their area of medical expertise.”

It’s sad that even in times when so many people are working hard to find treatments for the virus, and many are risking their lives caring for those who have the virus, that there are unscrupulous people trying to make money out of it. All we can do is be mindful, be careful and be suspicious of anything that sounds too good to be true.

There are no miracle cures. No miracle treatments. No rapid blood tests you can order in the mail. Be aware. And most importantly of all, be safe.

The CIRM Board recently held a meeting to approve $5 million in emergency funding for rapid research into potential treatments for COVID-19.

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.

Clinical trials: separating the wheat from the chaff

What do you do when the supposed solution to a problem actually turns out to be a part of the problem? That’s the situation facing people who want to direct patients to scientifically sound clinical trials. Turns out the site many were going to may be directing patients to therapies that are not only not scientifically sound, they may not even be safe.

The site in question is the www.clinicaltrials.gov website. That’s a list of all the clinical trials registered with the National Institutes of Health. In theory that should be a rock-solid list of trials that have been given the go-ahead by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to be tested in people. Unfortunately, the reality is very different. Many of the trials listed there have gone through the rigorous testing and approval process to earn the right to be tested in people. But some haven’t. And figuring out which is which is not easy.

The issue was highlighted by a terrific article on STAT News this week. The article’s title succinctly sums up the piece: “Stem cell clinics co-opt clinical-trials registry to market unproven therapies, critics say.”

The story highlights how clinics that are offering unproven and unapproved stem cell therapies can register their “clinical trial” on the site, even if they haven’t received FDA approval to carry out a clinical trial.

Leigh Turner, a bioethicist at the University of Minnesota and a long-time foe of these clinics, said:

“You can concoct this bogus appearance of science, call it a clinical study, recruit people to pay to participate in your study, and not only that: You can actually register on clinicaltrials.gov and have the federal government help you promote what you’re doing. That struck me as both dangerous and brilliant.”

At CIRM this is a problem we face almost every day. People call or email us asking for help finding a stem cell therapy for everything from cancer and autism to diabetes. If we are funding something or if there is one underway at one of our Alpha Stem Cell Clinics we can direct them to that particular trial. If not, the easiest thing would be to direct them to the clinicaltrials.gov site. But when you are not sure that all the programs listed are legitimate clinical trials, that’s not something we always feel comfortable doing.

As the STAT piece points out, some of the “trials” listed on the site are even being run by companies that the FDA is trying to shut down because of serious concerns about the “therapies” they are offering. One was for a Florida clinic that had blinded four people. Despite that, the clinic’s projects remain on the site where other patients can find them.

Being listed on clinicaltrials.gov gives clinics offering unproven therapies an air or legitimacy. So how can you spot a good trial from a bad one? It’s not always easy.

One red flag is if the trial is asking you to pay for the treatment. That’s considered unethical because it’s asking you to pay to be part of an experiment. Only a very few legitimate clinical trials ask patients to pay, and even then, only with permission from the FDA.

Another warning sign is anything that has a laundry list of things it can treat, everything from arthritis to Alzheimer’s. Well-designed clinical trials tend to be targeted at one condition not multiple ones.

We have put together some useful tools for patients considering taking part in a clinical trial. Here is a link to a video and infographic that tell people the questions they need to ask, and things they need to consider, before signing up for any clinical trial.

So why does the NIH continue to allow these clinics to “advertise” their programs on its website? One reason is that the NIH simply doesn’t have the bandwidth to check every listing to make sure they are legit. They have tried to make things better by including a warning, stating:

“Listing a study does not mean it has been evaluated by the U.S. Federal Government. Read our disclaimer for details. Before participating in a study, talk to your health care provider and learn about the risks and potential benefits.”

The bottom line is that if you are in the market for a stem cell therapy you should approach it the way you would any potentially life-changing decision: caveat emptor, buyer beware.

Media matters in spreading the word

Cover of New Yorker article on “The Birth Tissue Profiteers”. Illustration by Ben Jones

When you have a great story to tell the best and most effective way to get it out to the widest audience is still the media, both traditional mainstream and new social media. Recently we have seen three great examples of how that can be done and, hopefully, the benefits that can come from it.

First, let’s go old school. Earlier this month Caroline Chen wrote a wonderful in-depth article about clinics that are cashing in on a gray area in stem cell research. The piece, a collaboration between the New Yorker magazine and ProPublica, focused on the use of amniotic stem cell treatments and the gap between what the clinics who offer it are claiming it can do, and the reality.

Here’s one paragraph profiling a Dr. David Greene, who runs a company providing amniotic fluid to clinics. It’s a fine piece of writing showing how the people behind these therapies blur the lines between fact and reality, not just about the cells but also about themselves:

“Greene said that amniotic stem cells derive their healing power from an ability to develop into any kind of tissue, but he failed to mention that mainstream science does not support his claims. He also did not disclose that he lost his license to practice medicine in 2009, after surgeries he botched resulted in several deaths. Instead, he offered glowing statistics: amniotic stem cells could help the heart beat better, “on average by twenty per cent,” he said. “Over eighty-five per cent of patients benefit exceptionally from the treatment.”

Greene later backpedals on that claim, saying:

“I don’t claim that this is a treatment. I don’t claim that it cures anything. I don’t claim that it’s a permanent fix. All I discuss is maybe, potentially, people can get some improvements from stem-cell care.”

CBS2 TV Chicago

This week CBS2 TV in Chicago did their own investigative story about how the number of local clinics offering unproven and unapproved therapies is on the rise. Reporter Pam Zekman showed how misleading newspaper ads brought in people desperate for something, anything, to ease their arthritis pain.

She interviewed two patients who went to one of those clinics, and ended up out of pocket, and out of luck.

“They said they would regenerate the cartilage,” Patricia Korona recalled. She paid $4500 for injections in her knee, but the pain continued. Later X-rays were ordered by her orthopedic surgeon.

He found bone on bone,” Korona said. “No cartilage grew, which tells me it failed; didn’t work.”

John Zapfel paid $14,000 for stem cell injections on each side of his neck and his shoulder. But an MRI taken by his current doctor showed no improvement.

“They ripped me off, and I was mad.” Zapfel said.      

TV and print reports like this are a great way to highlight the bogus claims made by many of these clinics, and to shine a light on how they use hype to sell hope to people who are in pain and looking for help.

At a time when journalism seems to be increasingly under attack with accusations of “fake news” it’s encouraging to see reporters like these taking the time and news outlets devoting the resources to uncover shady practices and protect vulnerable patients.

But the news isn’t all bad, and the use of social media can help highlight the good news.

That’s what happened yesterday in our latest CIRM Facebook Live “Ask the Stem Cell Team” event. The event focused on the future of stem cell research but also included a really thoughtful look at the progress that’s been made over the last 10-15 years.

We had two great guests, UC Davis stem cell researcher and one of the leading bloggers on the field, Paul Knoepfler PhD; and David Higgins, PhD, a scientist, member of the CIRM Board and a Patient Advocate for Huntington’s Disease. They were able to highlight the challenges of the early years of stem cell research, both globally and here at CIRM, and show how the field has evolved at a remarkable rate in recent years.

Paul Knoepfler

Naturally the subject of the “bogus clinics” came up – Paul has become a national expert on these clinics and is quoted in the New Yorker article – as did the subject of the frustration some people feel at what they consider to be the too-slow pace of progress. As David Higgins noted, we all think it’s too slow, but we are not going to race recklessly ahead in search of something that might heal if we might also end up doing something that might kill.

David Higgins

A portion of the discussion focused on funding and, in particular, what happens if CIRM is no longer around to fund the most promising research in California. We are due to run out of funding for new projects by the end of this year, and without a re-infusion of funds we will be pretty much closing our doors by the end of 2020. Both Paul and David felt that could be disastrous for the field here in California, depriving the most promising projects of support at a time when they needed it most.

It’s probably not too surprising that three people so closely connected to CIRM (Paul has received funding from us in the past) would conclude that CIRM is needed for stem cell research to not just survive but thrive in California.

A word of caution before you watch: fashion conscious people may be appalled at how my pocket handkerchief took on a life of its own.