Headline: Stem Cell Roundup: Here are some stem cell stories that caught our eye this past week.

In search of a miracle

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Luane Beck holds Jordan in the emergency room while he suffers a prolonged seizure. Jordan’s seizures sometimes occur one after another with no break, and they can be deadly without emergency care. Photo courtesy San Francisco Chronicle’s Kim Clark

One of the toughest parts of my job is getting daily calls and emails from people desperate for a stem cell treatment or cure for themselves or a loved one and having to tell them that I don’t know of any. You can hear in their voice, read it in their emails, how hard it is for them to see someone they love in pain or distress and not be able to help them.

I know that many of those people may think about turning to one of the many stem cell clinics, here in the US and in Mexico and other countries, that are offering unproven and unapproved therapies. These clinics are offering desperate people a sense of hope, even if there is no evidence that the therapies they provide are either safe or effective.

And these “therapies” come with a big cost, both emotional and financial.

The San Francisco Chronicle this week launched the first in a series of stories they are doing about stem cells and stem cell research, the progress being made and the problems the field still faces.

One of the biggest problems, are clinics that offer hope, at a steep price, but no evidence to show that hope is justified. The first piece in the Chronicle series is a powerful, heart breaking story of one mother’s love for her son and her determination to do all she can to help him, and the difficult, almost impossible choices she has to make along the way.

It’s called: In search of a miracle.

A little turbulence, and a French press-like device, can help boost blood platelet production

Every year more than 21 million units of blood are transfused into people in the US. It’s a simple, life-saving procedure. One of the most important elements in transfusions are  platelets, the cells that stop bleeding and have other healing properties. Platelets, however, have a very short shelf life and so there is a constant need to get more from donors. Now a new study from Japan may help fix that problem.

Platelets are small cells that break off much larger cells called megakaryocytes. Scientists at the Center for iPS Cell Research and Application (CiRA) created billions of megakaryocytes using iPS technology (which turns ordinary cells into any other kind of cell in the body) and then placed them in a bioreactor. The bioreactor then pushed the cells up and down – much like you push down on a French press coffee maker – which helped promote the generation of platelets.

In their study, published in the journal Cell, they report they were able to generate 100 billion platelets, enough to be able to treat patients.

In a news release, CiRA Professor Koji Eto said they have shown this works in mice and now they want to see if it also works in people:

“Our goal is to produce platelets in the lab to replace human donors.”

Stem Cell Photo of the Week 

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Students at the CIRM Bridges program practice their “elevator pitch”. Photo Kyle Chesser

This week we held our annual CIRM Bridges to Stem Cell Research conference in Newport Beach. The Bridges program provides paid internships for undergraduate and masters-level students, a chance to work in a world-class stem cell research facility and get the experience needed to pursue a career in science. The program is training the next generation of stem cell scientists to fill jobs in California’s growing stem cell research sector.

This year we got the students to practice an “elevator Pitch”, a 30 second explanation, in plain English, of what they do, why they do it and why people should care. It’s a fun exercise but also an important one. We want scientists to be able to explain to the public what they are doing and why it’s important. After all, the people of California are supporting this work so they have a right to know, in language they can understand, how their money is changing the face of medicine.

Stem Cell Roundup: Jake Javier’s amazing spirit; TV report highlights clinic offering unproven stem cell therapies

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Jake Javier: Photo Michael Clemens, Sees the Day

In the Roundup we usually focus on studies that highlight advances in stem cell research but today we’re going to do something a little different. Instead of relying on print for our stories, we’re turning to video.

We begin with a piece about Jake Javier. Regular readers of our blog will remember that Jake is the young man who broke his neck the day before he graduated high school, leaving him paralyzed from the upper chest down.

After enrolling in the CIRM-funded Asterias clinical trial, and receiving a transplant of 10 million stem cells, Jake regained enough use of his arms and hands to be able to go to Cal Poly and start his life over.

This video highlights the struggles and challenges he faced in his first year, and his extraordinary spirit in overcoming them.

(thanks to Matt Yoon and his Creative Services team at Cal Poly for this video)

Going Undercover

The second video is from the NBC7 TV station in San Diego and highlights one of the big problems in regenerative medicine today, clinics offering unproven therapies. The investigative team at NBC7 went undercover at a stem cell clinic seminar where presenters talked about “the most significant breakthrough in natural medicine” for improving mobility and reducing pain. As the reporter discovered, the reality didn’t live up to the promise.

NBC7 Investigative Report

 

CIRM applauds FDA crackdown on stem cell clinics that “peddle unapproved treatments.”

FDA

CIRM is commending the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for its action against two stem cell clinics offering unapproved therapies.

On Wednesday, the FDA filed two complaints in federal court seeking a permanent injunction against California Stem Cell Treatment Center Inc. and US Stem Cell Clinic LLC. of Sunrise, Florida. The FDA says the clinics are marketing stem cell products without FDA approval and are not complying with current good manufacturing practice requirements.

“We strongly support the FDA’s strong stance to seek judicial action to stop these  clinics from marketing unproven therapies that pose a threat to the safety of patients” says Maria T. Millan, M.D., CIRM’s President and CEO. “We agree with FDA Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb’s statement that these ‘bad actors leverage the scientific promise of this field to peddle unapproved treatments that put patients’ health at risk.’”

In his statement yesterday, Dr. Gottlieb denounced the clinics saying they are exploiting patients and causing some of them “serious and permanent harm.”

“In the two cases filed today, the clinics and their leadership have continued to disregard the law and more importantly, patient safety. We cannot allow unproven products that exploit the hope of patients and their loved ones. We support sound, scientific research and regulation of cell-based regenerative medicine, and the FDA has advanced a comprehensive policy framework to promote the approval of regenerative medicine products. But at the same time, the FDA will continue to take enforcement actions against clinics that abuse the trust of patients and endanger their health.”

At CIRM, we believe it is critically important for participants in stem cell treatments to be fully informed about the nature of the therapy they are receiving, including whether it is approved by the FDA. Last year we partnered with California State Senator Ed Hernandez to pass Senate Bill No. 512, which required all clinics offering unproven stem cell therapies to post notices warning patients they were getting a therapy that was not approved by the FDA.

The Stem Cell Agency has taken several other actions to protect people seeking legitimate stem cell therapies.

  • All the clinical trials we consider for funding must already have an active Investigational New Drug (IND) status with the FDA and go through a rigorous scientific review by leading experts.
  • All CIRM-funded trials must adhere to strict regulatory standards and safety monitoring.
  • We have created the CIRM Alpha Stem Cell Clinics, a network of six top California medical centers that specialize in delivering patient-centered stem cell clinical trials that meet the highest standards of care and research.
  • CIRM provides access to information on all the clinical trials it supports.

“Through its funding mechanism, active partnership and infrastructure programs, CIRM has shepherded 48 FDA regulated, scientifically sound, rigorously reviewed promising stem cell and regenerative medicine projects into clinical trials,” says Dr. Millan. “Some of these treatment protocols have already started to show preliminary signs of benefit for debilitating and life-threatening disorders. We are committed to doing all we can, in partnership with patients, the research community and with the FDA, to develop transformative treatments for patients with unmet medical needs while adhering to the highest standards to protect the health and safety of patients and the public.”

To help people make informed decisions we have created an infographic and video that detail the information people need to know, and the questions they should ask, before they agree to participate in a clinical trial or get a stem cell therapy.

 

 

A road trip to the Inland Empire highlights a hot bed of stem cell research

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Gillian Wilson, Interim Vice Chancellor, Research, UC Riverside welcomes people to the combined Research Roadshow and Patient Advocate event

It took us longer than it should have to pay a visit to California’s Inland Empire, but it was definitely worth the wait. Yesterday CIRM’s Roadshow went to the University of California at Riverside (UCR) to talk to the community there – both scientific and public – about the work we are funding and the progress being made, and to hear from them about their hopes and plans for the future.

As always when we go on the road, we learn so much and are so impressed by everyone’s passion and commitment to stem cell research and their belief that it’s changing the face of medicine as we know it.

Dr. Deborah Deas, the Dean of the UC Riverside School of Medicine and a CIRM Board member, kicked off the proceedings by saying:

“Since CIRM was created in 2004 the agency has been committed to providing the technology and research to meet the unmet needs of the people of California.

On the Board I have been impressed by the sheer range and number of diseases targeted by the research CIRM is funding. We in the Inland Empire are playing our part. With CIRM’s help we have developed a strong program that is doing some exciting work in discovery, education and translational research.”

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CIRM’s Dr. Maria Millan at the Roadshow Patient Advocate event

CIRM’s President and CEO, Dr. Maria T. Millan, and our Board Chair, Jonathan Thomas then gave a quick potted history of CIRM and the projects we are funding. They highlighted how we are creating a pipeline of products from the Discovery, or basic level of research, through to the 45 clinical trials we are funding.

They also talked about the Alpha Clinic Network, based at six highly specialized medical centers around California, that are delivering stem cell therapies and sharing the experiences and knowledge learned from these trials to improve their ability to help patients and advance the field.

Researchers from both UCR then gave a series of brief snapshots of the innovative work they are doing:

  • Looking at new, more efficient and effective ways of expanding the number of human embryonic stem cells in the laboratory to create the high volume of cells needed for therapies.
  • Using biodegradable materials to help repair and regenerate tissue for things as varied as bone and cartilage repair or nerve restoration.
  • Exploring the use of epigenetic factors, things that switch genes on and off, to try and find ways to make repairs inside the body, rather than taking the cells outside the body, re-engineering them and returning them to the body. In essence, using the body as its own lab to manufacture replacement.

Another CIRM Board member, Linda Malkas, talked about the research being done at City of Hope (COH), where she is the associate chair of the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology, calling it an “engine for discovery that has created the infrastructure and attracted people with an  amazing set of skills to bring forward new therapeutics for patients.”

She talked about how COH is home to one of the first Alpha Clinics that CIRM funded, and that it now has 27 active clinical trials, with seven more pending and 11 more in the pipeline.

“In my opinion this is one of the crown jewels of the CIRM program. CIRM is leading the nation in showing how to put together a network of specialized clinics to deliver these therapies. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) came to CIRM to learn from them and to talk about how to better move the most promising ideas and trials through the system faster and more efficiently.”

Dr. Malkas also celebrated the partnership between COH and UCR, where they are collaborating on 19 different projects, pooling their experience and expertise to advance this research.

Finally, Christine Brown, PhD, talked about her work using chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T cells to fight cancer stem cells. In this CIRM-funded clinical trial, Dr. Brown hopes to re-engineer a patient’s T cells – a key cell of the immune system – to recognize a target protein on the surface of brain cancer stem cells and kill the tumors.

It was a packed event, with an overflow group watching on monitors outside the auditorium. The questions asked afterwards didn’t just focus on the research being done, but on research that still needs to be done.

One patient advocate couple asked about clinics offering stem cell therapies for Parkinson’s disease, wondering if the therapies were worth spending more than $10,000 on.

Dr. Millan cautioned against getting any therapy that wasn’t either approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) or wasn’t part of a clinical trial sanctioned by the FDA. She said that in the past, these clinics were mostly outside the US (hence the term “stem cell tourism”) but increasingly they are opening up centers here in the US offering unproven and unapproved therapies.

She said there are lots of questions people need to ask before signing up for a clinical trial. You can find those questions here.

The visit was a strong reminder that there is exciting stem cell research taking place all over California and that the Inland Empire is a key player in that research, working on projects that could one day have a huge impact in changing people’s lives, even saving people’s lives.

 

Using the courts to protect patients from unapproved stem cell therapies

A recent article in Nature looked at using lawsuits to help rein in the activities of clinics offering “unapproved” therapies. CIRM’s Geoff Lomax explains.

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When public health officials wanted to raise awareness about the dangers of smoking they filed lawsuits against the tobacco companies. They accused Big Tobacco of deceptive marketing and hiding the negative health effects of smoking. Ultimately, they won. Now a new study says a similar tactic could prove effective in combating clinics that offer unproven stem cell therapies.

CIRM works tirelessly to accelerate the delivery of stem cell treatments to patients with unmet medical needs. But, that doesn’t mean we support any treatment that claims to help people. CIRM only partners with projects that have been given the go-ahead by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to be tested in people in a clinical trial.  That’s because FDA approval means the clinical trial will be monitored and evaluated under high scientific and ethical standards.

In contrast, there are numerous examples where “stem-cell treatments” not sanctioned by the FDA are being marketed directly to patients. For years the FDA, CIRM and others have been warning consumers about the risks involved with these untested treatments. For example, just last  November the FDA issued a warning and advice for people considering stem cell treatments.

Legal steps

Last year CIRM also helped author a new California law designed to protect consumers. The law requires health care providers to disclose to patients when using a treatment that is not FDA approved or part of an FDA-sanctioned clinical trial.

At CIRM, we frequently direct patients seeking treatments to our Alpha Stem Cell Clinics Network. The Alpha Clinics only perform clinical trials that have been given the green light by the FDA, and they provide expert consultation and informed consent to patients to help ensure they make the best choice for themselves. Further, the Alpha Clinics follow up with patients after their treatments to evaluate safety and the effectiveness of the treatments.

These are steps that clinics offering unproven and unapproved therapies typically don’t follow. So, the question is how do you let people know about the risks involved in going to one of these clinics and how do you stop clinics offering “therapies” that might endanger the health of patients?

Using the law to hit clinics where it hurts

In a recently published perspective in the journal Nature an international team of policy experts considered whether civil lawsuits may play a role in stemming the tide of unproven treatments. In the article the authors say:

“The threat of financial liability for wrongdoing is the primary means by which civil law governs behavior in the private sector. Despite calls for stepping up enforcement efforts, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is currently restricted in its ability to identify and target clinics operating in apparent violation of regulations. The fear of tort liability {lawsuits} may provide sufficient incentive for compliance and minimize the occurrence of unethical practices.”

The authors identified nine individual and class action lawsuits involving clinics offering what they called “unproven stem cell interventions.” A few of those were dismissed or decided in favor of the clinics, with judges saying the claims lacked merit. Most, however, were settled by the clinics with no ruling on the merits of the issue raised. Even without definitive judgements against the clinics the authors of the article conclude:

“Stem cell lawsuits could intensify publicity and raise awareness of the harms of unproven treatments, set legal precedent, reshape the media narrative from one focused on the right to try or practice to one highlighting the need for adequate safety and efficacy standards, and encourage authorities to turn their attention to policy reform and enforcement.”

The authors suggest the courts may provide a forum where medical experts can inform patients, the legal community and the public about good versus harmful clinical practices. In short, the authors believe the legal process can be an effective forum for to provide education and outreach to those with disease and the public at large.

The better option of course would be for the clinics themselves to reform their practices and engage with the FDA to test their therapies in a clinical trial. Until that happens the courts may offer an alternative approach to curbing the marketing of these unproven and unapproved therapies.

Three people left blind by Florida clinic’s unproven stem cell therapy

Unproven treatment

Unproven stem cell treatments endanger patients: Photo courtesy Healthline

The report makes for chilling reading. Three women, all suffering from macular degeneration – the leading cause of vision loss in the US – went to a Florida clinic hoping that a stem cell therapy would save their eyesight. Instead, it caused all three to go blind.

The study, in the latest issue of the New England Journal of Medicine, is a warning to all patients about the dangers of getting unproven, unapproved stem cell therapies.

In this case, the clinic took fat and blood from the patient, put the samples through a centrifuge to concentrate the stem cells, mixed them together and then injected them into the back of the woman’s eyes. In each case they injected this mixture into both eyes.

Irreparable harm

Within days the women, who ranged in age from 72 to 88, began to experience severe side effects including bleeding in the eye, detached retinas, and vision loss. The women got expert treatment at specialist eye centers to try and undo the damage done by the clinic, but it was too late. They are now blind with little hope for regaining their eyesight.

In a news release Thomas Alibini, one of the lead authors of the study, says clinics like this prey on vulnerable people:

“There’s a lot of hope for stem cells, and these types of clinics appeal to patients desperate for care who hope that stem cells are going to be the answer, but in this case these women participated in a clinical enterprise that was off-the-charts dangerous.”

Warning signs

So what went wrong? The researchers say this clinic’s approach raised a number of “red flags”:

  • First there is almost no evidence that the fat/blood stem cell combination the clinic used could help repair the photoreceptor cells in the eye that are attacked in macular degeneration.
  • The clinic charged the women $5,000 for the procedure. Usually in FDA-approved trials the clinical trial sponsor will cover the cost of the therapy being tested.
  • Both eyes were injected at the same time. Most clinical trials would only treat one eye at a time and allow up to 30 days between patients to ensure the approach was safe.
  • Even though the treatment was listed on the clinicaltrials.gov website there is no evidence that this was part of a clinical trial, and certainly not one approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) which regulates stem cell therapies.

As CIRM’s Abla Creasey told the San Francisco Chronicle’s Erin Allday, there is little evidence these fat stem cells are effective, or even safe, for eye conditions.

“There’s no doubt there are some stem cells in fat. As to whether they are the right cells to be put into the eye, that’s a different question. The misuse of stem cells in the wrong locations, using the wrong stem cells, is going to lead to bad outcomes.”

The study points out that not all projects listed on the Clinicaltrials.gov site are checked to make sure they are scientifically sound and have done the preclinical testing needed to reduce the likelihood they may endanger patients.

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Jeffrey Goldberg

Jeffrey Goldberg, a professor of Ophthalmology at Stanford and the co-author of the study, says this is a warning to all patients considering unproven stem cell therapies:

“There is a lot of very well-founded evidence for the positive potential of stem therapy for many human diseases, but there’s no excuse for not designing a trial properly and basing it on preclinical research.”

There are a number of resources available to people considering being part of a clinical trial including CIRM’s “So You Want to Participate in a Clinical Trial”  and the  website A Closer Look at Stem Cells , which is sponsored by the International Society for Stem Cell Research (ISSCR).

CIRM is currently funding two clinical trials aimed at helping people with vision loss. One is Dr. Mark Humayun’s research on macular degeneration – the same disease these women had – and the other is Dr. Henry Klassen’s research into retinitis pigmentosa. Both these projects have been approved by the FDA showing they have done all the testing required to try and ensure they are safe in people.

In the past this blog has been a vocal critic of the FDA and the lengthy and cumbersome approval process for stem cell clinical trials. We have, and still do, advocate for a more efficient process. But this study is a powerful reminder that we need safeguards to protect patients, that any therapy being tested in people needs to have undergone rigorous testing to reduce the likelihood it may endanger them.

These three women paid $5,000 for their treatment. But the final cost was far greater. We never want to see that happen to anyone ever again.

TV’s Dr. Oz takes on clinics offering dubious stem cell treatments

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A. J. Foyt: Photo courtesy Indycar.com

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At first glance motor car racing legend A. J. Foyt and TV celebrity heart surgeon Dr. Mehmet Oz would seem to have little in common. But this week they both made news for being at opposite ends of an all too familiar story: for-profit medical clinics offering unproven stem cell therapies.

Foyt, who is now 82 years old, made history by becoming the only driver to win the Indianapolis 500 (4 times), the Daytona 500, the 24 Hours of Daytona, and the 24 Hours of Le Mans. But along the way he crashed several times leading to a broken back, broken feet and legs and numerous other injuries. Now, in a story in USA Today he announced he is going to Mexico to get a stem cell treatment to help repair his battered body.

In the article he is quoted talking about the procedure to IndyCar.com:

“They have to cut away some of the tissue from my stomach and it takes 8-10 weeks for it to grow back to produce the stem cells. I’ll probably have it done soon so that we can begin the treatment within the next two to three months.”

He then plans on having those stem cells, taken from fat in his stomach, injected into his ankles, shoulders and blood.

Now, that doesn’t sound like any stem cell therapy I have ever heard of and ordinarily we’d blog about the risks involved in going to a clinic like this for a “treatment” like this. But this week we don’t have to, because Dr. Oz did it for us.

This week the Dr. Oz TV show ran a special investigative story that looked at for-profit stem cell clinics that offer ”treatments” for everything from arthritis to Alzheimer’s, using the same cells and the same approach.

In an accompanying blog called ‘Crucial Tips to Avoid Stem Cell Scammers’ Elizabeth Leamy – who took part in undercover visits to several clinics – says there are more than 570 clinics around the US offering unproven and unapproved treatments:

“What I learned is that revenue has eclipsed research. Hundreds of for-profit stem cell clinics already exist across the country because desperate patients will pay big money —$5,000 to $20,000 a pop— for stem cell treatments. Surely it’s no coincidence that the patients these clinics target are those with diseases for which there is no known cure.”

The blog does a terrific job of exposing the tricks that clinics use to get patients to sign up for these “treatments” and highlights key red flags for people to watch out for:

  • Be wary of clinics that offer treatments with stem cells that originate from a part of the body that is different from the part being treated.
  • Watch out for clinics where treatments are offered for a wide variety of conditions but rely on a single cell type.
  • Be wary of clinics that measure or advertise their results primarily through patient testimonials.
  • Be wary of claims that stem cells will somehow just know where to go and what to do to treat a specific condition.

She concludes by warning that “just because stem cells came from your body doesn’t mean they are safe,” then listing the complications, even deaths, that have occurred among patients going to clinics like this, both inside and outside the US, saying:

“Yes, what we heard in our undercover visits was troubling. But worst yet, the premature stem cell treatments of today could undermine trust in the promising stem cell treatments of tomorrow.”

Perhaps someone should tell A. J. Foyt.

 

Patients beware: warnings about shady clinics and suspect treatments

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Every day we get a call from someone seeking help. Some are battling a life-threatening or life-changing disease. Others call on behalf of a friend or loved one. All are looking for the same thing; a treatment, better still a cure, to ease their suffering.

Almost every day we have to tell them the same thing; that the science is advancing but it’s not there yet. You can almost feel the disappointment, the sense of despair, on the other end of the line.

If it’s hard for us to share that news, imagine how much harder it is for them to hear it. Usually by the time they call us they have exhausted all the conventional therapies. In some cases they are not just running out of options, they are also running out of time.

Chasing hope

Sometimes people mention that they went to the website of a clinic that was offering treatments for their condition, claiming they had successfully treated people with that disease or disorder. This week I had three people mention the same clinic, here in the US, that was offering them “treatments” for multiple sclerosis, traumatic brain injury and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Three very different problems, but the same approach was used for each one.

It’s easy to see why people would be persuaded that clinics like this could help them. Their websites are slick and well produced. They promise to take excellent care of patients, often helping take care of travel plans and accommodation.

There’s just one problem. They never offer any scientific evidence on their website that the treatments they offer work. They have testimonials, quotes from happy, satisfied patients, but no clinical studies, no results from FDA-approved clinical trials. In fact, if you explore their sites you’ll usually find an FAQ section that says something to the effect of they are “not offering stem cell therapy as a cure for any condition, disease, or injury. No statements or implied treatments on this website have been evaluated or approved by the FDA. This website contains no medical advice.”

What a damning but revealing phrase that is.

Now, it may be that the therapies they are offering won’t physically endanger patients – though without a clinical trial it’s impossible to know that – but they can harm in other ways. Financially it can make a huge dent in someone’s wallet with many treatments costing $10,000 or more. And there is also the emotional impact of giving someone false hope, knowing that there was little, if any, chance the treatment would work.

Shining a light in shady areas

U.C. Davis stem cell researcher, CIRM grantee, and avid blogger Paul Knoepfler, highlighted this in a recent post for his blog “The Niche” when he wrote:

Paul Knoepfler

Paul Knoepfler

“Patients are increasingly being used as guinea pigs in the stem cell for-profit clinic world via what I call stem cell shot-in-the-dark procedures. The clinics have no logical basis for claiming that these treatments work and are safe.

As the number of stem cell clinics continues to grow in the US and more physicians add on unproven stem cell injections into their practices as a la carte options, far more patients are being subjected to risky, even reckless physician conduct.”

As if to prove how real the problem is, within hours of posting that blog Paul posted another one, this time highlighting how the FDA had sent a Warning Letter to the Irvine Stem Cell Treatment Center saying it had serious concerns about the way it operates and the treatments it offers.

Paul has written about these practices many times in the past, sometimes incurring the wrath of the clinic owners (and very pointed letters from their lawyers). It’s to his credit that he refuses to be intimidated and keeps highlighting the potential risks that unapproved therapies pose to patients.

Making progress

As stem cell science advances we are now able to tell some patients that yes, there are promising therapies, based on good scientific research, that are being tested in clinical trials.

There are not as many as we would like and none have yet been approved by the FDA for wider use. But those will come in time.

For now we have to continue to work hard to raise awareness about the need for solid scientific evidence before more people risk undergoing an unproven stem cell therapy.

And we have to continue taking calls from people desperate for help, and tell them they have to be patient, just a little longer.

***

If you are considering a stem cell treatment, the International Society for Stem Cell Research had a terrific online resource, A Closer Look at Stem Cells. In particular, check out the Nine Things to Know about Stem Cell Treatments page.

 

Policy Matters: Stem Cells and the Public Interest

Guest Author Geoff Lomax is CIRM’s Senior Officer for Medical and Ethical Standards.

In the spirit of Stem Cell Awareness Day, Cell Stem Cell has compiled a “Public Interest” collection of articles covering ethical, legal, and social implications of stem cell research and made it freely available. The collection may be found here.

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The collection covers issues ranging from research involving human embryos to the use of stem cell therapies in patients. For those of you interested in a good primer on the history of stem cell controversies, Herbert Gottweis provides a detailed review of the federal policy debate in the United States. This debate has resulted in inconsistent policy and disrupted research. Gottweis uses this history to support his message that a “comprehensive, and proactive policy approach in this field beyond the quick legal fix” is needed for patients to ultimately benefit from the science.

What I found most interesting about this collection was the focus on stem cell treatments and “tourism.” A majority of the articles address the use of stem cells in patients. This focus is an indicator of how far the field has progressed. Stem cells clinical trials are now a reality and this results in two separated but related considerations. First, is how to make sure prospective patients are well informed should they participate in a clinical trial. Second, how to avoid stem cell “snake oil” where someone is pitching an unproven procedure. These issues are related by their solution that involves empowerment and education of patients and their support networks.

For example, in Stem Cell Tourism and Public Education: The Missing Elements, Master writes:

“It is important for the scientific, medical, ethics, and policy communities to continue to promote accurate patient and public information on stem cell research and tourism and to ensure that it is effectively disseminated to patients by working alongside patient advocacy groups.”

Master’s team found that groups committed to the advancement of good science, including patient advocates and researchers, often lacked basic information about clinical trials and other options for patients. This lack of information may contribute to patients being wooed by those pitching unproven procedures. Thus, the research community should continue to work with patients and advocacy organizations to identity options for treatment.

Another aspect of patient empowerment is what Insoo Huyn refers to as “therapeutic hope” in his piece: Therapeutic Hope, Spiritual Distress, and the Problem of Stem Cell Tourism. Huyn suggests that a supportive system for delivering cell therapies should includes nurturing hope. He writes, “patients might understand when an intervention’s chances of success are extremely remote at best, but may still want to ‘‘give it a shot’’ as long as a beneficial outcome cannot be ruled out as categorically impossible.” Huyn recognizes that well developed early-stage clinical trials are not expected to provide a benefit to patients (they are designed to evaluate safety), but the nature of the therapeutic (often cells) means there may be some real effect.

A third piece by the ISSCR Ethics Taskforce titled Patients Beware: Commercialized Stem Cell Treatments on the Web presents a guide to evaluating therapies. They present five principles that patients, researchers and advocates can rally around to identify credible interventions. The taskforce states:

The guiding principles for the development of the recommended process were that (1) the standards for identifying and reviewing clinics and suppliers should be objective and clear; (2) the inquiry and review process should be publicly transparent and relatively straight- forward for any clinic or practitioner to comply with; (3) conflicts of interest, if any, of the declarant ought to be disclosed to the ISSCR; (4) there should be no actual or apparent conflicts of interest of staff or others involved in the inquiry or review process for any particular matter; and (5) any findings that a clinic fails to meet standards should be communicated in a specific factual way, rather than with broad conclusions of fraudulent practices.

While the Cell Stem Cell Public Interest series covers a range of issues related to stem cells and society, the emphasis on treatments and patients is a reminder of how far the field has come. There is broad consensus that patients, researchers and advocates have roles to play in advancing safe and effective cell therapies.

Geoff Lomax

Stem Cell Stories that Caught our Eye: A Zebrafish’s Stripes, Stem Cell Sound Waves and the Dangers of Stem Cell Tourism

Here are some stem cell stories that caught our eye this past week. Some are groundbreaking science, others are of personal interest to us, and still others are just fun.

The zebrafish (Danio rerio) owes its name to a repeating pattern of blue stripes alternating with golden stripes. [Credit: MPI f. Developmental Biology/ P. Malhawar]

The zebrafish (Danio rerio) owes its name to a repeating pattern of blue stripes alternating with golden stripes. [Credit: MPI f. Developmental Biology/ P. Malhawar]

How the Zebrafish Got its Stripes. Scientists in Germany have identified the different pigment cells that emerge during embryonic development and that determine the signature-striped pattern on the skins of zebrafish—one of science’s most commonly studied model organisms. These results, published this week in the journal Science, will help researchers understand how patterns, from stripes to spots to everything in between, develop.

In the study, scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology mapped how three distinct pigment cells, called black cells, reflective silvery cells, and yellow cells emerge during development and arrange themselves into the characteristic stripes. While researchers knew these three cell types were involved in stripe formation, what they discovered here was that these cells form when the zebrafish is a mere embryo.

“We were surprised to observe such cell behaviors, as these were totally unexpected from what we knew about color pattern formation”, says Prateek Mahalwar, first author of the study, in a news release.

What most surprised the research team, according to the news release, was that the three cell types each travel across the embryo to form the skin from a different direction. According to Dr. Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard, the study’s senior author:

“These findings inform our way of thinking about color pattern formation in other fish, but also in animals which are not accessible to direct observation during development such as peacocks, tigers and zebras.”

Sound Waves Dispense Individual Stem Cells. It happens all the time in the lab: scientists need to isolate and study a single stem cell. The trick is, how best to do it. Many methods have been developed to achieve this goal, but now scientists at the Regenerative Medicine Institute (REMEDI) at NUI Galway and Irish start-up Poly-Pico Technologies Ltd. have pioneered the idea of using sound waves to isolate living stem cells, in this case from bone marrow, with what they call the Poly-Pico micro-drop dispensing device.

Poly-Pico Technologies Ltd., a start-up that was spun out from the University of Limerick in Ireland, has developed a device that uses sound energy to accurately dispense protein, antibodies and DNA at very low volumes. In this study, REMEDI scientists harnessed this same technology to dispense stem cells.

These results, while preliminary, could help improve our understanding of stem cell biology, as well as a number of additional applications. As Poly-Pico CEO Alan Crean commented in a news release:

“We are delighted to see this new technology opportunity emerge at the interface between biology and engineering. There are other exciting applications of Poly-Pico’s unique technology in, for example, drug screening and DNA amplification. Our objective here is to make our technology available to companies, and researchers, and add value to what they are doing. This is one example of such a success.”

The Dangers of Stem Cell Toursim. Finally, a story from ABC News Australia, in which they recount a woman’s terrifying encounter with an unproven stem cell technique.

In this story, Annie Levington, who has suffered from multiple scleoris (MS) since 2007, tells of her journey from Melbourne to Germany. She describes a frightening experience in which she paid $15,000 to have a stem cell transplant. But when she returned home to Australia, she saw no improvement in her MS—a neuroinflammatory disease that causes nerve cells to whither.

“They said I would feel the effects within the next three weeks to a year. And nothing – I had noticed nothing whatsoever. [My neurologist] sent me to a hematologist who checked my bloods and concluded there was no evidence whatsoever that I received a stem cell transplant.”

Sadly, Levington’s story is not unusual, though it is not as dreadful as other instances, in which patients have traveled thousands of miles to have treatments that not only don’t cure they condition—they actually cause deadly harm.

The reason that these unproven techniques are even being administered is based on a medical loophole that allows doctors to treat patients, both in Australia and overseas, with their own stem cells—even if that treatment is unsafe or unproven.

And while there have been some extreme cases of death or severe injury because of these treatments, experts warn that the most likely outcome of these untested treatments is similar to Levington’s—your health won’t improve, but your bank account will have dwindled.

Want to learn more about the dangers of stem cell tourism? Check out our Stem Cell Tourism Fact Sheet.