July 12, 2020

The Niche

Knoepfler lab stem cell blog

Emergency Suspension of Stem Cell Clinic Doc Kenneth Welker

The Oregon State Medical Board took emergency action to suspend the medical license of Dr. Kenneth Welker of Eugene, Oregon on Thursday.

Update: Unfortunately, the Associate Press (AP) story on this topic (discussed more below) contains numerous important mistakes including thoroughly mixing up embryonic, adult, and induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSC). Keep that in mind. Also, sadly another update this time in 2020, finds few actions still by state medical boards on stem cell clinics.

Oregon Optimal Health, Kenneth Welker
Oregon Optimal Health, Kenneth Welker.

The emergency suspension was due in part to his injections of unapproved stem cell therapies into patients, some of whom had adverse side effects. The board viewed his practice to be a serious danger to patients. According to Nigel Duara of the AP:

“The board considers Dr. Kenneth Welker’s medical practice an immediate danger to the public.”

The Board has issued past recent orders on Welker. For example, in a September 20, 2013 action, the Board ordered Welker to stop doing stem cell interventions (order here).

Welker worked out of Oregon Optimal Health clinic, whose website is at this time unavailable, perhaps due to the suspension. The AP says “Welker is a trained surgeon who quit his practice to pursue alternative medicine in 2007.”

This Oregon clinic offered a variety of alternative treatments.

Oddly enough, Welker reportedly told patients that iPS cells (IPSCs) were the key to improving their health:

“In Welker’s case, according to the board complaint, he went much further, telling his patients that iPSC was the fix to their varied ailments: their arthritis, their patellar tears, their vertigo.”

However, it is not at all clear that he used iPS cell procedures. My guess is that iPS cells had nothing to do with what the doctor actually did.

He isolated fat and processed it from the patients before returning it to the patients, which doesn’t sound like an iPS cell procedure but more akin to SVF. However, details remain absent at this time as to how he processed the fat tissue/cells. It is unclear, for example, if Welker’s processing of the tissue constituted more than minimal manipulation, which could bring the FDA into the picture.

Oregon Optimal Health FB

On the Oregon Optimal Health Facebook page, claims are made about how fabulous stem cell infusions are (see image above).

The AP reported on some of the problems that patients experienced. For example, Welker apparently injected “stem cells” into Patient J’s spine:

Welker used liposuction to remove fluid and fat from Patient J’s abdomen, processed it, then injected some of the processed solution into her spine and administered the rest intravenously.

“Within 5 minutes, Patient J complained of tingling in her body and both legs,” according to the order. “(Welker) noted that she had a high respiratory rate and elevated blood pressure with a lot of perspiration that lasted 45 minutes.”

Welker was surprised, and could not explain the reaction. He didn’t report Patient J’s reaction to the FDA.

It will be important to follow this story as it develops, but one lesson here is how risky unregulated stem cell clinics can be more generally.

There are probably more than 100 clinics similar to Oregon Optimal Health across just the US and many are run by doctors lacking thorough training in stem cells, transplantation, bioethics, and other important areas.

This case, the deaths of two patients of Dr. Zannos Grekos, a Florida “stem cell” doctor who had his license suspended, and other cases of harm outside the US including deaths at stem cell clinics, strongly support the need for appropriate regulatory oversight of US stem cell clinics to promote patient safety even as some paradoxically argue for less regulation.

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