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.

‘Pay-to-Participate’ stem cell clinical studies, the ugly stepchild of ClinicalTrials.gov

When patients are looking for clinical trials testing new drugs or treatments for their disease, one of the main websites they visit is ClinicalTrials.gov. It’s a registry provided by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) of approximately 250,000 clinical trials spanning over 200 countries around the world.

ClinicalTrials.gov website

If you visit the website, you’ll find CIRM’s 28 active clinical trials testing stem cell-based therapies for indications like spinal cord injury, type 1 diabetes, heart failure, ALS, cancer and more. These are Food and Drug Administration (FDA)-approved trials, meaning that researchers did the proper preclinical studies to prove that a therapy was safe and effective in animal models and received approval from the US FDA to test the treatment in human clinical trials.

As the largest clinical registry in the world, ClinicalTrials.gov is a very valuable resource for patients and the public. But there are studies on the website that have recently surfaced and taken on the role of ‘ugly stepchild’. These are unapproved stem cell therapies from companies and stem cell clinics that are registering their “pay-to-participate treatments”. And they are doing so in clever ways that don’t make it obvious to patients that the trials aren’t legitimate. The reason this is so troubling is that unproven therapies can be dangerous or even life-threatening to patients.

Leigh Turner

Leigh Turner, an associate professor of bioethics at the University of Minnesota, has written extensively about the serious problem of stem cell clinics marketing unproven stem cell therapies to desperate patients. Turner, in collaboration with UC Davis professor Dr. Paul Knoepfler, published a study in Cell Stem Cell last year that identified over 550 clinics in the US that promote unproven treatments for almost any condition, including diseases like Alzheimer’s where research has shown that cures are a long way off.

Today, Turner published an article in Regenerative Medicine that shines a light on how companies and clinics are taking advantage of ClinicalTrials.gov to promote their “pay-to-participate” unproven stem cell studies. The article is available for free if you register with RegMedNet, but you can find news coverage about Turner’s piece through EurekAlert,  Wired Magazine and the San Diego Union Tribune.

In an interview with RegMedNet, Turner explained that his research into how businesses promote unproven stem cell therapies led to the discovery that these studies were being listed as “pay-to-participate” on ClinicalTrials.gov.

“Many of these businesses use websites, social media, YouTube videos, webinars and other tools to engage in direct-to-consumer marketing of supposed stem cell therapies. To my surprise, at one point I noticed that some of these companies had successfully listed “pay-to-participate” studies on ClinicalTrials.gov. Many of these “studies” look to me like little more than marketing exercises, though of course the businesses listing them would presumably argue that they are genuine clinical studies.”

While FDA-approved trials can charge study participants, most don’t. If they do, it’s motivated by recovering costs rather than making a profit. Turner also explained that organizations with FDA-approved studies “need to prepare a detailed rationale and a budget, and obtain approval from the FDA.”

Companies with unproven stem cell therapies are ignoring these regulatory requirements and listing their studies as “patient-funded” or “patient-sponsored”. Turner found seven such “pay-to-participate” studies sponsored by US companies on ClinicalTrials.gov. He also identified 11 studies where companies don’t indicate that patients have to pay, but do charge patients to participate in the studies.

Turner is concerned that these companies are using ClinicalTrials.gov to take advantage of innocent patients who don’t realize that these unproven treatments aren’t backed by solid scientific research.

“Patients have already been lured to stem cell clinics that use ClinicalTrials.gov to market unproven stem cell interventions. Furthermore, some patients have been injured after undergoing stem cell procedures at such businesses. Many individuals use ClinicalTrials.gov to find legitimate, well-designed, and carefully conducted clinical trials. They are at risk of being misled by study listings that lend an air of legitimacy and credibility to clinics promoting unproven and unlicensed stem cell interventions.”

Having identified the problem, Turner is now advocating for a solution.

“ClinicalTrials.gov needs to raise the bar and perform a proper review of studies before they are registered. Better screening is needed before more patients and research subjects are harmed. It’s astonishing that officials at the NIH and US FDA haven’t already done something to address this obvious matter of patient safety. Putting a disclaimer on the website isn’t sufficient.”

The disclaimer that Turner is referring to is a statement on the ClinicalTrials.gov website that says, “Listing of a study on this site does not reflect endorsement by the National Institutes of Health (NIH).”

Turner argues that this disclaimer “simply isn’t sufficient.”

“Patients and their loved ones, physicians, researchers, journalists, and many other individuals all use ClinicalTrials.gov because they regard the registry and database as a source of meaningful, credible information about clinical studies. I suspect most individuals would be shocked at how easy it is to register on ClinicalTrials.gov studies that have obvious methodological problems, do not appear to comply with applicable federal regulations or have glaring ethical shortcomings.”

While Turner acknowledges that the NIH database of clinical trials is a “terrific public resource” that he himself has used, he regards it “as a collective good that needs to be protected from parties willing to misuse and abuse it.” His hope is that his article will give journalists the starting material to conduct further investigators into these pay-to-participate studies and the companies behind them. He also hopes that “such coverage will help convince NIH officials that they have a crucial role to play in making ClinicalTrials.gov a resource people can turn to for information about credible clinical trials rather than allowing it to become a database corrupted and devalued by highly problematic studies.”

Convincing is one thing, but implementing change is another. Turner said in his interview that he knows that “careful screening by NIH officials will require more resources, and I am making this argument at a time when much of the political discourse in the U.S. is about cutting funding for the CDC, FDA, NIH and other federal agencies.”

He remains hopeful however and concluded that “perhaps there are ways to jolt into action people who are in positions of power and who can act to help prevent the spread of misinformation, bad science, and marketing packaged as clinical research.”

A call to put the ‘public’ back in publication, and make stem cell research findings available to everyone

Opening the door

Opening the door to scientific knowledge

Thomas Gray probably wasn’t thinking about stem cell research when, in 1750 in his poem “Elegy in a Country Churchyard”, he wrote: “Full many a flower is born to blush unseen”. But a new study says that’s precisely what seems to happen to the findings of many stem cell clinical trials. They take place, but no details of their findings are ever made public. They blush, if they blush at all, unseen.

The study, in the journal Stem Cell Reports, says that only around 45 percent of stem cell clinical trials ever have their results published in peer-reviewed journals. Which means the results of around 55 percent of stem cell clinical trials are never shared with either the public or the scientific community.

Now, this finding apparently is not confined to stem cell research. Previous studies have shown a similar lack of publication of the results of more conventional therapies. Nonetheless, it’s a little disappointing – to say the least – to find out that so much knowledge and potentially valuable data is being lost due to lack of publication.

Definitely not full disclosure

Researchers at the University of Alberta in Canada used the US National Institute of Health’s (NIH) clinicaltrials.gov website as their starting point. They identified 1,052 stem cell clinical trials on the site. Only 393 trials were completed and of these, just 179 (45.4 percent) published their findings in a peer-reviewed journal.

In an interview in The Scientist, Tania Bubela, the lead researcher, says they chose to focus on stem cell clinical trials because of extensive media interest and the high public expectations for the field:

“When you have a field that is accused of over promising in some areas, it is beholden of the researchers in that field to publish the results of their trials so that the public and policy makers can realistically estimate the potential benefits.”

Now, it could be argued that publishing in a peer-reviewed journal is a rather high bar, that many researchers may have submitted articles but were rejected. However, there are other avenues for researchers to publish their findings, such as posting results on the clinicaltrials.gov database. Only 37 teams (3.5 percent) did that.

Why do it?

In the same article in The Scientist, Leigh Turner, a bioethicist at the University of Minnesota, raises the obvious question:

“The study shows a gap between studies that have taken place and actual publication of the data, so a substantial number of trials testing cell-based interventions are not entering the public domain. The underlying question is, what is the ethical and scientific basis to exposing human research subjects to risk if there is not going to be any meaningful contribution to knowledge at the end of the process?”

In short, why do it if you are not going to let anyone know what you did and what you found?

It’s a particularly relevant question when you consider that much of this research was supported with taxpayer dollars from the NIH and other institutions. So, if the public is paying for this research, doesn’t the public have a right to know what was learned?

Right to know

At CIRM we certainly think so. We expect and encourage all the researchers we fund to publish their findings. There are numerous ways and places to do that. For example, we expect each grantee to post a lay summary of their progress which we publish on our website. Stanford’s Dr. Joseph Wu’s progress reports for his work on heart disease shows you what those look like.

We also require researchers conducting clinical trials that we are funding to submit and post their trial results on the clinicaltrials.gov website.

The International Society for Stem Cell Research (ISSCR), agrees and recently updated its Guidelines for Stem Cell Research and Clinical Translation calling on researchers to publish, as fully as possible, their clinical trial results.

That is true regardless of whether or not the clinical trial showed it was both safe and effective, or whether it showed it was unsafe and ineffective. We can learn as much from failure as we can from success. But to do that we need to know what the results are.

Publishing only positive findings skews the scientific literature, and public perception of this work. Ignoring the negative could mean that other scientists waste a lot of time and money trying to do something that has already demonstrated it won’t work.

Publication should be a requirement for all research, particularly publicly funded research. It’s time to put the word “public” back in publication.