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A Note From Salt Lake City

Readers will no doubt recall my post last week on stem cell clinics. It seems to have achieved a wide audience – wide enough to include the legal profession, at any rate. Below are copies of a letter I have recently received, and what better place than here to address the points it raises?

Since the AAAS was copied on this, let me start off by saying that the phrase “editorially independent” at the top of every page of my blog means what it says.  The AAAS and Science Translational Medicine have no editorial input or responsibility whatsoever for the contents of this blog; they find out what I’m writing about the same time everyone else does (when I hit the “Publish” button), and that goes for this post as well, naturally.

All, right then. We’ll take these in order. I make no claim that Dr. Greene is employed by the Utah Cord Bank, but the cut directly to the quote from the New Yorker article definitely seems to have caused you at Snell & Wilmer to believe that I did. Let me be clear, then: Dr. Greene is indeed most definitely not an employee of or a contractor for UCB. But I should be putting that “Dr.” in quotes, because according to the New Yorker/Pro Publica article, he had his license to practice medicine revoked after five years of practice, which featured four deaths, numerous injuries, and fourteen malpractice lawsuits. He now apparently goes around telling people that amniotic stem cells can treat long and impressive lists of diseases. No, David Greene is not an employee of the Utah Cord Bank – he’s a customer. He’s the sort of person that UCB apparently does business with, and the article refers to UCB as his main supplier.

I would also advise S&W that (contrary to their assertion), “Dr” Greene is not an employee of Atlas Medical Center – rather, he has his own company, R3 Stem Cell. I realize how sensitive you are to getting employer attributions correct, and I would not want Atlas to turn around and send you a strongly worded letter of their own. If someone suggested that I were in business with David Greene, I would probably be calling a lawyer, too. Until provided with the details of his medical record, Atlas did have Greene speaking at a whole list of events, as shown in the understated advertisement at right. “Stop the pain! Don’t operate. . .regenerate!” According to Pro Publica, Atlas Medical center is also supplied by UCB, who clearly deal with some very energetic folks. Glad to help clear all this up. ProPublica quotes UCB’s founder, Eliott Spencer, as saying that “We have been burdened and troubled by claims made by some physicians that use our products“, and I can certainly see where that could be the case. I’m burdened and troubled by them, too, and I’m not even in the stem cell business.

Moving along: there is also no statement in the original post the UCB is a “strip storefront clinic”. But to make you feel better, I will so state now: Utah Cord Bank is not a clinic, strip storefront or otherwise. If the view in Google Maps is accurate, UCB is definitely not a storefront operation at all: in fact, they are located in a building right next door to Super Fly Paragliding, across the street from Pratt Electric Supply, and right down the way from South Valley Harley-Davidson. You can’t miss them. But they certainly don’t deal directly with patients. No, they deal with people like “Dr.” Greene and Atlas Medical. My personal opinion is that I would want to keep some of these people at greater than the “arm’s length” that your letter mentions, but to each their own.

As for your next claim, I do not, in fact, refer to UCB’s leaders as “hucksters”. Nowhere in my post is Dr. Spencer (UCB’s founder) mentioned at all. In the blog post I clearly use that term in a general sense, and in my opinion it certainly applies to people who (for example) tell audiences that stem cells are ready right at this moment to treat diseases like Alzheimer’s, lupus, MS, and COPD. There is no scientific proof for such human therapy claims at present – what word would you use to describe someone who pretends, for money, that there is? These burdening and troubling statements would appear to be made by some of the end users of UCB’s amniotic stem cell preparations; I have certainly seen no evidence that these statements are made by UCB itself. I have not, in fact, seen any of the assertions made by UCB on behalf of its own products at all. I have thus not formed an opinion as to whether they are hucksters or not, and do not wish to give the impression that I have. But does the stem cell treatment business overall have such people in it, in my opinion? Yes, I believe it does.

Your letter goes on to note UCB’s safety record at the FDA, and your statements about that are certainly correct. Understandably, you do not mention the allegations by Pro Publica that employees spent the weekend before the FDA’s January 2018 inspection throwing away expired reagents to prepare for the visit. I have only the article’s word on this, which is apparently based on statements made by ex-employees, but the New Yorker‘s reputation for sourcing and fact-checking is noteworthy. I would assume that you have already had several communications with them on the matter; we’ll say no more about it here.

As for Predictive, the company that is the subject of the short-seller’s report that I mention in the blog post, the Hindenberg report on them does indeed mention possible investment fraud. Short-sellers dig around for that sort of thing, but nowhere in my blog post do I accuse UCB of anything of the kind. The similarities I noted between the two companies (well, similarities other than UCB’s co-founder Doug Schmid leaving to join Predictive) are based partly on this section from the New Yorker/Pro Publica article on the sourcing of amniotic stem cell material:

The supply chain for amniotic therapy starts and finishes with people who are at vulnerable times in their lives: the cells come from new mothers, and go to chronically ill patients. Women who undergo cesarean sections are often asked to donate their birth tissue shortly before the procedure. By law, they cannot be compensated for it. Mothers who donated their tissue told ProPublica and The New Yorker that they assumed, or were assured, that it would be used for a worthy cause—and that, otherwise, it would be disposed of as medical waste. . .

And on these statements from the Hindenberg report on Predictive Biotech:

Predictive’s revenue is derived almost entirely from sales of stem cell products, a business that appears to be predicated on (i) sourcing birthing tissue from pregnant women who wrongly believe they are donating it to purely non-profit causes, and (ii) aggressive “miracle cure” sales tactics targeted toward elderly customers suffering from chronic pain. . .We also contacted multiple new moms who donated birthing tissue to Predictive’s thinly disclosed subsidiary under false impressions that their donations were going to be used for non-profit causes.

These sounded rather similar to me, in the way that these similarities apply to the entire donation-driven part of the stem cell business, but that is my opinion, and I realize that opinions may differ. The New Yorker article contains a good deal of material about UCB, and certainly leaves the impression that it might be a recipient of such donated tissue – but you’ve no doubt spoken to them on that issue already, and please do correct me if I’m wrong. As for liposuction, I specifically refer to this as “another branch” of the stem cell business; it has of course nothing to do with UCB.

As for the back end of the process (the dealings of physicians and clinics with the end customers) those would appear to involve more of those troubling and burdensome statements mentioned by Dr. Spencer. The Hindenberg report says that Predictive is especially targeting customers with chronic pain and speaking of “miracle cures”. I will note here that the Utah Cord Bank’s own web site features a testimonial from “Lester” about what stem cell therapy did for his lower back pain, and his flat statement that “It is a miracle”. I assume that he is speaking of stem cell therapy in general – Lester does not state that he was treated by a UCB product, and UCB itself, as stated, is certainly not a clinic that would be directly treating patients like him. (Note: I did not mention the allegations in the New Yorker article by former employees (and denied by Dr. Spencer) that other employees there were treated on-site with UCB’s products by Dr. Spencer’s brother in what were referred to as “shoot-up parties”; the only information I have on that is what’s contained in the article itself). And of course, there is the note at the bottom of the UCB web page that “WE DO NOT CLAIM THAT THERAPY USING STEM CELLS IS A CURE FOR ANY CONDITION, DISEASE OR INJURY.” UCB’s web site does indeed feature dramatic testimonials from people who use the word “miracle”, but it is certainly true that none of them are quoted using the word “cure”.

To your last point: as mentioned above, I don’t state anywhere in the blog post that the allegations of investment fraud by people at Predictive have anything to do with UCB and its practices: they certainly do not, and I am glad to say so. You also state that I have “lumped in” UCB (which, as you note, has not yet had a serious averse event) with companies that have had them. The blog post addresses the stem cell treatment industry in general, but I understand your concerns: I wouldn’t want to be lumped in with some of those people, either. But I am not in the stem cell business, and UCB is. As mentioned in my blog post, I believe that the business is in urgent need of more attention from the FDA, an opinion held by many others. Can one not criticize the industry in general without defaming UCB in particular? I have no intention of defaming UCB, but I have every intention of criticizing the stem cell business as it exists today.

So correct me if I’m mistaken, but I believe that you’re asking me to distinguish UCB from the industry it operates in, from the behavior of some of its own customers, from companies and people who use similar language to that found on UCB’s own web site, from its own competitors (some of whom say far worse things about UCB than you allege that I have), and from the practices of one of those competitors which is now run by one of UCB’s founders. Since I do not, in fact, operate with the “reckless disregard for the truth” that you speak of, I hope that this follow-up post has managed to do that. Good day to you, too.

 

 

 

 

52 comments on “A Note From Salt Lake City”

  1. Truthteller says:

    Derek, you just made my Monday. Thank you for your work!

  2. John Wayne says:

    If you are the sort of person or company that likes to push people around with lawyers, this is a warning – the average chemist can run circles around the average lawyer and we are not afraid. More amused, really. Thanks Derek.

    1. milkshake says:

      but – but – but it makes us look bad what you write, sort of argument.

  3. Escapee says:

    Bravo!

    As Christoper Hitchens once said, vindication is the greatest feeling in the world. Not just being repeatedly proven right, but that it comes hand in hand with knowing that other people are wrong.

  4. Brett says:

    If they actually try and follow through with the suit (which I doubt they will), Utah has an Anti-SLAPP statue.

    1. Barry says:

      Utah’s most prominent statue (on top of the temple) is of the angel Moroni. But yes, Utah also has a SLAPP statute protecting you from these lawyers’ spurious attacks
      https://anti-slapp.org/utah

  5. Mad Chemist says:

    I’m guessing they think an independent blogger is easier to intimidate than the New Yorker.

  6. anon says:

    Thanks Derek for dealing with this in the open, keep the good work coming!

  7. A Weak Show of Force says:

    👏👏👏👏👏👏👏👏

  8. Wavefunction says:

    Keep up the good work. As Gian-Carlo Rota said, when pygmies cast such long shadows, it must be very late in the day.

    1. JimM says:

      I’ve seen that epigram attributed to Erwin Chargaff in reference to Crick and Watson, but Wikiquotes tells me it’s unsourced.

      1. Noni Mausa says:

        It’s a grand quote anyway, and I’m very glad to have it!

  9. Ken says:

    Sounds like it’s time to remind Snell and Wilmer of the reply given in the case of Arkell vs Pressdram (http://www.lettersofnote.com/2013/08/arkell-v-pressdram.html).

  10. CR says:

    My favorite is the last sentence, “Please govern yourself accordingly”. I plan to use this now in all situations.

  11. J Severs says:

    Well done, Derek. Keep it up!

  12. SSG says:

    Wow, someone (at UCB) is getting a wee bit cranky.

    Oh no, am I going to get a letter in the post for making that claim?

    1. Joeylawn says:

      SSG – If you do, do what the manager did in the movie Major League when a player handed him a piece of paper saying he doesn’t have to do calesthenics….

  13. Ethan Lowe says:

    If anyone from UCB is reading this I would be very willing to testify against my father if you can make limiting his ability to recite limericks a key portion of the settlement

    1. Derek Lowe says:

      You forgot to ask for limits on my ability to compose them!

      “An ungrateful son tried to take part
      In a lawsuit and thought himself way smart
      Then without his knowledge
      The checks to his college
      Dried up: now he’s working at Kmart”

      Note: he had a summer job there once, so I know that this is a prospect that will stop him cold.

      1. Anonymous says:

        There once was a son, Ethan Lowe
        A rugger for Sydney Rabbitoh
        At two thirty, six three
        I’d avoid carefully
        And let him get on with the show
        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ethan_Lowe

        (It’s a good thing he doesn’t play for the Balmain Tigers – it wouldn’t rhyme.)

    2. Barry says:

      Ah, Ethan,
      Perspective’s so hard to maintain with family. If it’s only limericks, you’ll survive, somehow. My family get to endure whole sonnets. e.g.

      sous-vide denatures proteins, each in turn
      ‘though it won’t sear a surface like hot coal.
      You’re confident your meal will cook, not burn
      the water-bath gives anyone control.
      Those hydrophobic sidechains from inside
      turned outward, make the proteins aggregate.
      For lack of chaperones, this colloid’s fried;
      the moisture content’s lost as exudate.
      The lambchops that a beaver couldn’t chew
      we pray are relegated to the past.
      They’re now a trifle anyone can do–
      cosmetic grillmarks only added last.
      This water-oven’s more than just a fad
      it saves ingredients from going bad.

  14. MikeG says:

    Yikes, reminds me of:

    There once was a man from Lausanne
    Whose limericks never would scan
    When they asked him why
    He replied with a sigh:
    “It’s because I always try to get as many words into the last line as I possibly can.”

  15. luysii says:

    Derek:

    I wouldn’t be so sanguine about this. Based on the experience of my colleagues, even when they’ve ‘won’ a malpractice suit, they’ve essentially lost time and suffered a lot of stress.

  16. Matlock says:

    A man walked into a bar, leading an alligator by a leash. He asked the bartender, “Do you serve lawyers here?”

    “Sure do,” said the bartender.

    “Good,” replied the man. “Give me a beer, and I’ll have a lawyer for my ‘gator.”

    1. ScientistSailor says:

      If a lawyer speaks in the woods, and the jury isn’t there to hear it, is it still lying?

    2. Nesprin says:

      Now come on- the 99% of lawyers give the 1% a bad name

  17. The Flying Spaghetti Monster says:

    BAM!

  18. myma says:

    I am having a hard time understanding from the letter how the blog caused damages. Damages to a company usually means financial damages, in my limited legal experience. As far as I can tell, there aren’t any potential stem cell patients or clients who read this blog who have changed their minds and caused the company financial damage.

    1. Anon says:

      More likely the lawyers have caused more damage with their fees!

      1. Ken says:

        Or the “Streisand Effect”, summarized by Bill Murray in Scrooged as “You can’t buy publicity like this!”

  19. Foogy says:

    You should cc your response directly to the FDA, let’s see if the regulators can actually bother to regulate.

  20. Duncan Bayne says:

    Brilliant, Derek. Bravo for sticking to your guns. Here’s hoping that UCB enjoys a bit of the Streisand Effect, as well. I wonder if their counsel tried to dissuade them from taking such a stupid step?

    1. loupgarous says:

      The letter went out under their counsel’s letterhead. If that firm meant anything but an in terrorem statement, they concealed it well.

      Someone further downstream in the comment space noticed that pages 2 and 3 of that crapfest are dated over a month earlier than Derek made his post.

      Given those pages say Derek made statements he clearly did not make (but which ProPublica and New Yorker may have made), it seems to me that the task of trying to frighten Derek may have fallen to a junior partner, or even a clerk. Clearly someone whose name isn’t on the letterhead.

      Saying things that aren’t true is home country for legal firms, but it still is pretty shocking for someone alleging defamation to recklessly defame someone in the same letter. The letter from Snell and Wilmer is, itself, a paragon of reckless and poorly-researched comments.

  21. Better get a lawyer says:

    Be careful Derek, you can only do such things if you have nothing to lose, if you are so called judgement proof.
    If you’ve got something for them to take then look out.

  22. Uncle Fester says:

    “please govern yourself accordingly”
    Had some idiot that ripped me off, actually clearly defrauded me….tell me that.

    I just moved forward and exposed him for the fraud that he was.
    He ended up having to take down his companies web site and change his company name I shamed him so bad LOL.

  23. Josh Bloom says:

    Just. Plain. Brilliant.

  24. Pot kettle black says:

    Doesn’t the real UCB have a trademark for UCB and isn’t this “UCB” infringing said trademark?

    1. Barry says:

      UCB has defended the “CAL” trademark. As the oldest campus in the system, Berkeley and only Berkeley claims that. I’m not aware that it claims trademark on “UCB”

      1. sgcox says:

        I believe Pot kettle black refer to the big and respectful pharma company:
        https://www.ucbpharma.co.uk/Home
        They probably do not even know about Utah outfit.

  25. enl says:

    (with regard to Dr. Greene)
    The Dr. really shouldn’t be in quotes. He is a doctor, in the same way you are: he has an unrevoked doctorate from an accredited institution. He is no longer a licensed physician. The US doen’t have a clear way to say this, like the UK (“Delisted”), but is a point that a lawyer will jump on like a maggot to a festering cadaver.

    After your initial post the other day, I followed the references, because I am that kind or nerd, and am confident that what you said does not cross any lines. Barring, of course, clear evidence that you based the initial post, and this one, on clearly unsupported/fraudulent references.

    Keep up the good fight.

    1. Martin says:

      I’d be curious what the state licensing board would have to say about that. Here in Oregon, if you use the term Doctor, you must be licensed. Calling yourself a doctor without license can cause you to get in very, very deep trouble. Oregon also went after a guy with a degree in Electrical Engineering (famously) for calling themselves an Engineer, which legally you can only do if you have a Professional Engineer license. Truth in advertising laws in action…

      I knew someone who was a nurse, but had changed his first name to “Doctor”. He had a hard time getting hired, because they were afraid of impersonation. Every patient had to get the disclaimer, “No, I’m not a doctor, it’s just my name.” I believe. Those with PhD’s might get called ‘Doctor’, but when it comes to medical stuff, I wouldn’t be surprised if calling yourself doctor without license gets you in hot water.

      Here’s a specific reference for Oregon, didn’t find anything specific for Utah:

      ORS 676.110 Use of title “doctor.”
      (1) An individual practicing a health care profession may not use the title “doctor” in connection with the profession, unless the individual:
      (a) Has earned a doctoral degree in the individual’s field of practice; and
      (b)(A) Is licensed by a health professional regulatory board as defined in ORS 676.160 to practice the particular health care profession in which the individual’s doctoral degree was earned

  26. Art K says:

    *mic drop

  27. loupgarous says:

    Well, damn, Derek. Way to shut three pages (mostly composed of BS charges) down with the righteous truth. Nowhere did I get the impression in your original post you’d mentioned Spencer. And your statements about UCB were not defamatory. You relied on the reports of others, and the New Yorker in particular is well-known for its fact-checking.

    The law firm who contacted you is demanding you make several false statements. I hope you have competent legal counsel, and wish you and your counsel the very best of luck shoving every word in that three-page barrage of nonsense down the plaintiff’s throats.

  28. Kiss the Chemist says:

    In an increasingly Trumpian world, it confirms my belief in humanity to hear voices like yours Derek.

    Great work once more.

    PS : If one day you need a few dollars for your legal fees, let me know! It would give me infinite pleasure to fund you burying these bastards.

  29. Tom says:

    They’ve dated the letter on pages 2 and 3 as May 14 2019, more than a month before your original blog post, shows how accurate they are with their claim…

    1. Noni Mausa says:

      Well, I’ll be doodley-danged! I never noticed.

      We must ask ourselves: Did the esteemed firm of Snell & Wilmer just adapt this letter from an earlier letter to the New Yorker? Or is their legacy copy of WordPerfect finally crapping out? I’m not sure if letters from time travelers have standing in legal proceedings. In any event, well caught.

    2. George Anoony says:

      Well spotted, and hilarious! Makes them look like incompetent dicks, even if it doesn’t invalidate their warning.

    3. Fluorine Chemist says:

      Now, that’s a good catch! I am sure many of us didn’t notice it! That really shows the competence of these guys! By the way, well done, Derek! Really impressed by the way you have articulated your response – highly concise, cultured and powerful1

  30. Vader says:

    So I looked up “Snell & Wilmer” on Wikipedia.

    The results were quite telling, and amusing.

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