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.

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.

Stem-Cell-Clinics-to-Trust

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.

‘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.”

Texas tries to go it alone in offering unproven stem cell therapies to patients

Texas Capitol. (Shutterstock)

One of the most hotly debated topics in stem cell research is whether patients should be able to have easier access to unproven therapies using their own stem cells, at their own risk, and their own cost. It’s a debate that is dividing patients and physicians, researchers and lawmakers.

In California, a bill working its way through the state legislature wants to have warning signs posted in clinics offering unproven stem cell therapies, letting patients know they are potentially putting themselves at risk.

Texas is taking a very different approach. A series of bills under consideration would make it easier for clinics to offer unproven treatments; make it easier for patients with chronic illnesses to use the “right to try” law to take part in early-stage clinical trials (in the past, it was only patients with a terminal illness who could do that); and allow these clinics to charge patients for these unproven stem cell therapies.

Not surprisingly, the Texas bills are attracting some widely divergent views. Many stem cell researchers and some patient advocates are opposed to them, saying they prey on the needs of vulnerable people, offering them treatments – often costing thousands, even tens of thousands of dollars – that have little or no chance of success.

In an article on STATnews, Sean Morrison, a stem cell researcher at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, in Dallas, said the Texas bills would be bad for patients:

“When patients get desperate, they have a capacity to suspend disbelief. When offered the opportunity of a therapy they believe in, even without data and if the chances of benefit are low, they’ll fight for access to that therapy. The problem is there are fraudulent stem cell clinics that have sprung up to exploit that.”

Patients like Jennifer Ziegler disagree with that completely. Ziegler has multiple sclerosis and has undergone three separate stem cell treatments – two in the US and one in Panama – to help treat her condition. She is also a founding member of Patients For Stem Cells (PFSC):

Jennifer Ziegler

“PFSC does not believe our cells are drugs. We consider the lack of access to adult stem cells an overreach by the federal government into our medical freedoms. My cells are not mass produced, and they do not cross state lines. An adult stem cell treatment is a medical procedure, between me, a fully educated patient, and my fully competent doctor.”

The issue is further complicated because the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) – which has regulatory authority over stem cell treatments – considers the kinds of therapies these clinics offer to be a technical violation of the law. So even if Texas passes these three bills, they could still be in violation of federal law. However, a recent study in Cell Stem Cell showed that there are some 570 clinics around the US offering these unproven therapies, and to date the FDA has shown little inclination to enforce the law and shut those clinics down.

UC Davis stem cell researcher – and CIRM grantee – Paul Knoepfler is one of the co-authors of the study detailing how many clinics there are in the US. On his blog – The Niche – he recently expressed grave concerns about the Texas bills:

Paul Knoepfler

“The Texas Legislature is considering three risky bills that would give free rein to stem cell clinics to profit big time off of patients by selling unproven and unapproved “stem cell treatments” that have little if any science behind them. I call one of these bills “Right to Profit” for clinics, which if these became law could get millions from vulnerable patients and potentially block patient rights.”

Ziegler counters that patients have the right to try and save their own lives, saying if the Texas bills pass: “chronically ill, no option patients in the US, will have the opportunity to seek treatment without having to leave the country.”

It’s a debate we are all too familiar with at CIRM. Every day we get emails and phone calls from people asking for help in finding a treatment, for them or a loved one, suffering from a life-threatening or life-altering disease or disorder. It’s incredibly difficult having to tell them there is nothing that would help them currently being tested in a clinical trial.

Inevitably they ask about treatments they have seen online, offered by clinics using the patient’s own stem cells to treat them. At that point, it is no longer an academic debate about proven or unproven therapies, it has become personal; one person asking another for help, to find something, anything, to save their life.

Barring a dramatic change of policy at the FDA. these clinics are not going to go away. Nor will the need of patients who have run out of options and are willing to try anything to ease their pain or delay death. We need to find another way, one that brings these clinics into the fold and makes the treatments they offer part of the clinical trial process.

There are no easy answers, no simple solutions. But standing on either side of the divide, saying those on the other side are either “heartless” or “foolish” serves no one, helps no one. We need to figure out another way.

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.

goldberg-jeffrey

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.