In case anyone was wondering, the commercial stem cell clinic business is still shady and full of hype, profiteering, and outright fraud. Overflowing with all of those, actually. And although there are people turning profits on this stuff all over the country, it may not surprise to learn that there’s an awful lot of it out in Utah, which has long been a center for the “nutritional supplement” business and is now branching out.
It’s not hard to find people advertising stem cell treatments for a whole list of ailments. If you’d like to see some, just type “stem cell therapy” into Google and watch the paid ads that show up next to your search results. These people will talk up everything from joint pain all the way to Alzheimer’s. From those two indications, you’d be correct in assuming that many of these operators are targeting elderly customers with the promise of some sort of regenerative therapy, injecting them with young, fresh, healthy cells that can turn into new cartilage, new heart tissue, new neurons and whatever you like. Well, that would certainly be great. But that’s not what we have right now (despite a great deal of real research and its accompanying time, effort, and money). Figuring out the right sorts of cells to use, how to collect them (and from where), how to administer them (and to whom), and how to make them do what you want them to do once given to a patient – these turn out to be extremely hard problems.
They were extremely hard problems fifteen or twenty years ago, when the general public first started hearing a lot about stem cells, and they still are. (I well recall John Edwards as a vice presidential candidate, telling people about how folks were going to be getting up out of wheelchairs, etc.) And there are so many issues that we haven’t worked out yet – just to pick one, think about what might happen if you administer some vigorous young cells that are capable of turning into various types of tissue and growing. . .hmmm. . .exactly. Here’s a case of a tumor resulting from an experimental stem cell therapy attempt, and it’s a real concern.
The thing is, there really are a lot of legitimate opportunities in stem cell therapy, and there’s a lot of legitimate effort going into trying to get them to work. “Regenerative medicine” is a real topic and very much worth investigating. But the folks in the strip-storefront clinics with the toll-free numbers and all major credit cards accepted, they’re not helping to do any of that work. But if you’re a desperate customer without any sort of medical or scientific background, what you’ll see are all those clinics, and they talk about the thousands of people that they’ve helped, and they have locations around the country (around the world!), and about their cutting-edge science, the latest research, all those clinical trials (!), and the case histories are just amazing. . .and you’re trying to tell me that none of this is real? That it’s all just some sort of scam? Why, yes. That’s the right word.
Here’s a report from earlier this summer at the New Yorker with ProPublica, which details how things are done at the Utah Cord Bank. It’ll show you just how this business works:
“Patients come back to the center saying, ‘I can walk farther, I can breathe easier, I can sleep better,’ ” (Dr. Greene) proclaimed. “It’s remarkable, the outcomes we’ve been seeing for the last few years.” In the second row, a slender woman in a striped jacket, who had hobbled into the meeting on a wooden cane, pumped her fists in the air. “Stem cells!” she cheered.
Yeah. If you read through the article, you’ll discover that “Dr.” Greene’s title is strictly honorific. He used to be a surgeon until a blizzard of malpractice lawsuits let to his medical license being revoked, but he’s not letting that slow him down one bit. One of the keys to the business model is that these alleged stem cells are extracted from cord blood donations around the country (as opposed to another branch of the “business” that extracts them from liposuction samples). As the article shows, most women signing the form are under the impression that they’re helping medical research, rather than enabling a bunch of hucksters to buy vacation homes. For the most part, no one really assays these cell preparations much, and there’s evidence that whatever stem cells are present are dying. But who cares? There’s no real evidence that the “therapies” being administered with them do anything at all, other than generating bills that no medical insurance will cover. The FDA has done a terrible job at regulating this industry, and has let so many cats escape out of so many bags that I don’t see how they’re going to get a handle on things. They’ve been making more moves in the area, but I wish they’d try even harder. So we have this:
. . .the staff told her that the supplier was offering a discount that would lower her cost to seventy-three hundred dollars, for injections in both knees. “They were just acting so shocked, one of them said, ‘I’ve never seen a discount this high before,’ ” she recalled. “I was so gullible.” She received an injection in each knee, and returned every two months for a checkup. “They had me fill out this form every time to record my pain level, and it was close to ten every time,” she said. The staff assured her that she would improve within six months, but her knees did not get better.
Here’s an article from a firm of short-sellers, the evocatively named Hindenberg Research, on another Utah-based stem cell operation called Predictive Technology. Some of their employees seem to have come over from the firm described in the New Yorker article, actually, and one of their directors is our old friend, former Utah Senator Orrin Hatch. He should rethink that appointment, because while the article is of course a brief for the prosecution, the Hindenberg folks make a compelling case for the entire Predictive operation being yet another scam. Higher-ups all over the company (including the CEO) have records of securities fraud accusations and many have SEC enforcement histories. Four of the company’s recent “acquisitions” have exactly the same address, which used to be their own. And so on. In general, the company relies on exactly the same sorts of deception at the front and back end of its business as the Utah Cord Bank and many others – women think that they’re donating tissue for research, and patients think they’re getting an effective therapy with evidence behind it. Neither are true.
There are all sorts of problems. Stat has reported on companies actually requiring employees to give some stem cell clinics business, because their “therapies” are cheaper for the employer’s health insurance than (say) a knee replacement. Companies are not only selling unproven treatments to patients, they’re raising money and selling stock to investors who want to get in on what looks like a hot business. This whole area is a blot on the medical landscape; these people stripping money from the pockets of everyone within range. In return they do no good whatsoever, and often do actual harm (here are some recent cases of stem cell injections that had a bonus of bacterial contamination, which is not the sort of thing you want injected into your sore shoulder). In return, actual scientists in the field (academic and industrial) are getting splattered with the all the mud. It’s a shame. It’s a disgrace. It shouldn’t be this way.