July 6, 2020

The Niche

Knoepfler lab stem cell blog

Arthritis Foundation Sell Out To Stem Cell Clinic Celltex?

The Texas stem cell clinic Celltex was one of the most controversial businesses in the world of stem cells in 2012 and 2013 (see here for background and as an update see this new post on how the Texas clinic has teamed up with a local university).

The FDA essentially shut down the Celltex clinical operations in Texas for a host of issues, but the company itself has forged on even so. Now the firm is part of a new controversy involving dubious, experimental interventions including on at least one pediatric patient as well as the use of a child patient in marketing of such unapproved therapies.

This new situation surprisingly involves the Arthritis Foundation.

In fact, Celltex has formed a partnership with the Arthritis Foundation. This relationship raises serious ethical questions. For example, is it ethical for there to be an exchange of money between a charity that is supposed to be looking out for the best interests of patients and a dubious for-profit company selling unapproved medical interventions to such patients?

Another ethical concern is the use by for-profit clinics of clients, including potentially children, as potential marketing tools. A kid in such a situation cannot themself give consent to be part of experimental medical interventions or advertising campaigns.

Why would the Arthritis Foundation want to be mixed up in such ethically dubious stuff?

Here’s what the Arthritis Foundation had to say of their “joint” partnership:

“The Arthritis Foundation continues to support new and more effective interventions to fight arthritis. “We are excited about the groundbreaking advancements in adult stem cell research leading toward new treatments and therapies for arthritis patients,” says Fiona Cunningham, director of community advancement for the Arthritis Foundation South Central Region. We are proud and honored to partner with Celltex and companies like them who demonstrate their commitment to bring the future of stem cell technology for arthritis and related diseases to the United States.”

I have sent an email to the national office of the Arthritis Foundation hoping to communicate with their relatively new CEO Ann Palmer or other leadership about this situation with Celltex, but have not heard back. I wonder if the national leadership of the Arthritis Foundation knows about and approves of this apparent South Central Region relationship with Celltex?

Also in a recent newspaper piece that reads like an advertisement for Celltex, the Arthritis Foundation is linked with Celltex. In so doing has the Arthritis Foundation indirectly promoted potentially risky “treatment” of patients including children by Celltex in Mexico?

In the article and also in a video testimonial by a specific pediatric patient and his family–see screenshot below from the end of the video indicating that the video was paid for by Celltex–the deep ties between Celltex and the Arthritis Foundation are clear.

Celltex and the Arthritis Foundation
Celltex and the Arthritis Foundation are teaming up.

Celltex has been most famous in the past for its links with Texas Governor Rick Perry and for running afoul of the FDA, which again basically forced Celltex to stop their clinical operations in the US due to numerous problems including most prominently the fact that the clinic was involved in giving patients transplants of an unapproved drug made of laboratory-processed stem cells and doing so without a license from the FDA.

Celltex’s IRB provider Texas Applied Biomedical Services (TABS) also ran afoul of the FDA and the warning letter it received mentioned unapproved research on pediatric patients amongst those whose IRBs it oversaw. While in principal that may not have referred specifically to Celltex, it raises concerns.

Today Celltex has footprints both in Texas still and also in Mexico. However, because of its non-compliance with FDA regulations, Celltex stem cell “treatments” are apparently administered only in Mexico at this time since that country has relatively weaker regulatory oversight of biological drugs, but a sizable proportion of Celltex clients are still Americans. Amongst the menu of numerous diseases that Celltex has claimed it can “treat” is arthritis including in kids.

In late 2014 and now early in 2015, Celltex has ramped up a major PR campaign and surprisingly a substantial part of this PR push has been this puzzling alliance between Celltex and the Arthritis Foundation.

What gives?

I’ve been trying to learn more about this odd couple of the Arthritis Foundation and its partner Celltex. What have they done together more specifically?

They linked up on the links ( on the golf course).

Late in 2014 they also threw a joint “Bone Bash Gala“, which raised more than a quarter of a million dollars for the Arthritis Foundation. I would call that big bucks.

Celltex wrote about the event on their website:

“Celltex Therapeutics Corporation (Celltex) helped to sponsor the Arthritis Foundation’s 2014 Houston Bone Bash, the foundation’s signature costume gala. The Bone Bash, held on Saturday, October 25 at Hotel Derek, was established with the goal of raising awareness of arthritis and helping the foundation provide resources to those living with this disease and their caregivers. This year, the Bone Bash raised more than $260,000 for the Arthritis Foundation.”

Update: I’m not entirely clear on just who forged the links with Celltex as it seems that it is not just in Texas, but the bigger regional South Central branch of the Arthritis Foundation as well. Again it is not clear if the national office is onboard, although Celltex has been tweeting about their new friends at the Arthritis Foundation (see below) including what I understood to be the national Arthritis Foundation’s Twitter username.

Why would the Arthritis Foundation be a partner with Celltex? The simplest answer might be they are doing it for money, but I was not sure.

So I called Arthritis Foundation South Central Region office on the phone.

They confirmed that they do have a financial relationship with the controversial Texas stem cell clinic.

Celltex donates money to the Arthritis Foundation and then in return Celltex is a “sponsor” of the Arthritis Foundation.

The person that I talked to on the phone from the Arthritis Foundation South Central Region office said “Celltex gets their name out there” and in exchange the Arthritis Foundation gets money in the form of donations from Celltex. Essentially this appears to be a way for Celltex to pay for publicity and for the legitimacy associated with the Arthritis Foundation.

For the Arthritis Foundation to be arguably selling its name to do this seems highly questionable. It is also risky both to itself and to kids with arthritis as well as adult arthritis patients. I hope that they reconsider.

Celltex has made a big deal of the case of a particular pediatric patient that it transplanted with stem cells in Mexico.

Could Celltex be using this child as part of a marketing plan?

That plan might include newspaper articles such as the one mentioned above, the video discussed earlier, and even pictures of the pediatric patient dressed up in a Halloween costume with the leader of Celltex, which Celltex posted on its website.

I’m not going to name that patient, or show the pictures of him that have been put up on the web, or link to the video involving him out of respect and privacy for him and his family. I wish him and the family all the best and I’m glad that this brave kid is feeling better.

This situation certainly reminds me of the Stemedica case in a number of ways in which hockey legend Gordie Howe was given a stem cell transplant in Mexico made possible by the American company Stemedica followed by a media blitz centered on the supposedly miraculous recovery.

It’s a shame for the Arthritis Foundation to be mixed up in this.

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