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.