60 Minutes Stung Stem Cell Doctor Fires Back But Not Convincingly

This Sunday 60 Minutes ran an expose piece of sorts on dubious stem cell therapies. The segment primarily focused on Dr. Dan Ecklund and his website “StemTechLabs” in Ecuador.

Ecklund was surprised by CBS reporter Scott Pelley during a visit to the U.S. and 60 Minutes ran segments of the interview that seemed very damning of Ecklund and his purported stem cell treatments. Ecklund seemed very shaken during the interview, which in part is understandable given the shock of suddenly finding yourself on camera with a 60 Minutes interviewer. However, what I found most troubling about Ecklund was the content of what he said. In my opinion, he seemed to take the perspective that he was beholden to no one and required no training to qualify him to inject people with unproven stem cell treatments.

Now, Ecklund has responded to the 60 Minutes interview and the accusations against him via his website (update: link removed as no longer up on the web). He makes some charges and specific points of his own that he numbers and which I discuss below. In large part my take on his response is that he does not substantially refute any of the interview successfully.

Ecklund makes many assertions in his response, but I thought I’d address 4 of the main points from the 60 Minutes broadcast that he raises multiple times and tries to refute.

1) The conspiracy. Ecklund claims there is a conspiracy to cover up new medical discoveries and he is upset that 60 Minutes “blows it off”, meaning this idea. He also points out that 60 Minutes is sponsored by Lipitor (I guess there was a Lipitor commercial?)

My response. I’ve been a scientist in the biomedical field about half my life, primarily in medical schools and at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, which also does medical treatments. Many members of my family have been and are medical doctors. To my knowledge, there is no great conspiracy out there to cover up medical discoveries. In fact, the whole idea of this conspiracy just makes no sense. The way that big pharma and medicine make money is off of new discoveries, not old medicines that go off patent protection.

2) Training. Dr. Ecklund did not attend a stem cell residency program. His response to this “charge” by 60 Minutes? “Well, there aren’t any.”

My Response. There in fact may be no medical residency training programs focused specifically on stem cells alone, but that does not mean that there are no training programs out there that could be relevant. Certainly a physician wanting to begin pursuing work in cell transplantation would have ample opportunities to be trained. The point more generally is that it appears based on the 60 Minutes broadcast that Ecklund has no specific expertise or training that would allow him to administer a stem cell treatment.

3) Publications. Dr. Ecklund reportedly has no publications on stem cells. Ecklund responds to this by saying that a doctor does not have to publish on an area to be adept at treating a patient using a drug in that area. For example, he says does a doctor giving a patient a blood pressure pill have to be an expert on that specific medication?

My Response. Stem cells are no ordinary drugs and if I were ever to contemplate getting a stem cell treatment for myself or a family member, I’d sure want a physician to treat me who has published in this area. Writing a website on stem cells does not qualify someone to give patients stem cell treatments. Also, the medications that Ecklund references to compare to stem cells importantly are (unlike his stem cell treatments) all FDA approved and have sometimes hundreds of publications on their safety and efficacy. Ecklund’s treatments apparently have no such track record.

4) The quality of Ecklund’s stem cells is lacking. Ecklund takes issue with the Duke laboratory analysis, which indicated that most of the cells in his “stem cell” sample were dead and the sample was full of debris.

My Response. He is right that there is no way we can be 100% sure about how many living cells were in the package of “stem cells” that he sent to the Duke lab prior to the Duke lab analyzing them, but I for one believe Duke’s analysis is correct. Maybe I’m wrong. We’ll never know.

Overall, my opinion is that Ecklund’s response does not substantially counter the alleged issues mentioned in the 60 Minutes broadcast.