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.

Stories that caught our eye: An antibody that could make stem cell research safer; scientists prepare for clinical trial for Parkinson’s disease; and the stem cell scientist running for Congress

Antibody to make stem cells safer:

There is an old Chinese proverb that states: ‘What seems like a blessing could be a curse’. In some ways that proverb could apply to stem cells. For example, pluripotent stem cells have the extraordinary ability to turn into many other kinds of cells, giving researchers a tool to repair damaged organs and tissues. But that same ability to turn into other kinds of cells means that a pluripotent stem cell could also turn into a cancerous one, endangering someone’s life.

A*STAR

Researchers at the A*STAR Bioprocessing Technology Institute: Photo courtesy A*STAR

Now researchers at the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR) in Singapore may have found a way to stop that happening.

When you change, or differentiate, stem cells into other kinds of cells there will always be some of the original material that didn’t make the transformation. Those cells could turn into tumors called teratomas. Scientists have long sought for a way to identify pluripotent cells that haven’t differentiated, without harming the ones that have.

The team at A*STAR injected mice with embryonic stem cells to generate antibodies. They then tested the ability of the different antibodies to destroy pluripotent stem cells. They found one, they called A1, that did just that; killing pluripotent cells but leaving other cells unharmed.

Further study showed that A1 worked by attaching itself to specific molecules that are only found on the surface of pluripotent cells.

In an article on Phys.Org Andre Choo, the leader of the team, says this gives them a tool to get rid of the undifferentiated cells that could potentially cause problems:

“That was quite exciting because it now gives us a view of the mechanism that is responsible for the cell-killing effect.”

Reviving hope for Parkinson’s patients:

In the 1980’s and 1990’s scientists transplanted fetal tissue into the brains of people with Parkinson’s disease. They hoped the cells in the tissue would replace the dopamine-producing cells destroyed by Parkinson’s, and stop the progression of the disease.

For some patients the transplants worked well. For some they produced unwanted side effects. But for most they had little discernible effect. The disappointing results pretty much brought the field to a halt for more than a decade.

But now researchers are getting ready to try again, and a news story on NPR explained why they think things could turn out differently this time.

tabar-viviane

Viviane Tabar, MD; Photo courtesy Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center

Viviane Tabar, a stem cell researcher at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York, says in the past the transplanted tissue contained a mixture of cells:

“What you were placing in the patient was just a soup of brain. It did not have only the dopamine neurons, which exist in the tissue, but also several different types of cells.”

This time Tabar and her husband, Lorenz Studer, are using only cells that have been turned into the kind of cell destroyed by the disease. She says that will, hopefully, make all the difference:

“So you are confident that everything you are putting in the patient’s brain will consist of  the right type of cell.”

Tabar and Studer are now ready to apply to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for permission to try their approach out in a clinical trial. They hope that could start as early as next year.

Hans runs for Congress:

Keirstead

Hans Keirstead: Photo courtesy Orange County Register

Hans Keirstead is a name familiar to many in the stem cell field. Now it could become familiar to a lot of people in the political arena too, because Keirstead has announced he’s planning to run for Congress.

Keirstead is considered by some to be a pioneer in stem cell research. A CIRM grant helped him develop a treatment for spinal cord injury.  That work is now in a clinical trial being run by Asterias. We reported on encouraging results from that trial earlier this week.

Over the years the companies he has founded – focused on ovarian, skin and brain cancer – have made him millions of dollars.

Now he says it’s time to turn his sights to a different stage, Congress. Keirstead has announced he is going to challenge 18-term Orange County Republican Dana Rohrabacher.

In an article in the Los Angeles Times, Keirstead says his science and business acumen will prove important assets in his bid for the seat:

“I’ve come to realize more acutely than ever before the deficits in Congress and how my profile can actually benefit Congress. I’d like to do what I’m doing but on a larger stage — and I think Congress provides that, provides a forum for doing the greater good.”