Popular Science stem cell clinic article itself raising some red flags

Popular Science piece on stem cells
Popular Science piece on stem cells seemed conflicted.

Popular Science recently did a piece on stem cell clinics that has raised some red flags. The concerns in this case are not necessarily about the clinics per se, but rather the actual article itself.

There are a lot of stem cell clinics out there and for years they had a pretty consistent strategy of avoiding media attention. It’s almost as if they had a secret “fly under the radar” club to avoid negative PR.

However, today’s stem cell clinics are bolder and have adopted a new strategy: actively use the media as a tool for positive PR.

For instance, there is the Gordie Howe-Stemedica case that seems to keep on giving and giving PR to Stemedica and its Mexican partner Novastem. Amongst other things, they do some non-FDA approved stem cell interventions in Mexico. After months of positive PR on the Howe story for Stemedica including from Howe’s family who talked up the clinic, we all learned that the Howe family had become investors in Stemedica at some point.

Popular Science has, in my way of thinking, fallen into this kind of stem cell clinic PR web with a recent piece. Writer Tyler Graham worked for a long time on this story on stem cell clinic chain, Cell Surgical Network (CSN). During that time he contacted Leigh Turner and me for assistance on the story and quotes.

Tyler also became, by his own disclosure in his piece in Popular Science, a patient of CSN, but we were not made aware of that. Tyler reports in his article having got a therapy from CSN doctor Mark Berman for a long-term, very troublesome back condition and gives a remarkable account of how the treatment apparently helped him. A cure is suggested.

Then there is the title of the piece: THE CURE-ALL.

There is no question mark on that title and the implication in the article is that the writer was cured of his back problem by CSN. The net result of this article is likely a drive of new business to CSN.

To his credit, Tyler does raise numerous questions about stem cell clinic offerings. He also reports on another patient (Lamon Brewster) who in the long run was not helped by CSN so that part of the article is good for balance, but overall my sense is that the article is very problematic.

The piece has some statements that sound promotional:

“That’s not to say Berman is doing anything illegal by offering a treatment he doesn’t fully comprehend. He’s not. He’s not even doing anything unethical. He is healing patients who could not be healed.”

These statements are questionable.

In the end this article is a big disappointment.

Because some high profile people have received free treatment (e.g. Gordie Howe) from stem cell clinics I asked Tyler if he received any kind of discount, free treatment, or other benefit from Dr. Berman or CSN, but got no reply. I also asked the fact checker for this story, Rebecca Geiger, about this question, but she did not reply either.

If I do hear from them I will definitely post it. It could well be that full price was paid and there were no other perks, but it was a reasonable question to ask.

If you want to see a recent in my view more balanced, investigative piece of journalism on stem cell clinics, I’d recommend taking a look at the great piece by the Associated Press (AP) by Matt Perrone.

9 thoughts on “Popular Science stem cell clinic article itself raising some red flags”

  1. It is good and right to be sceptic, but please consider there are people, who want to use stem cell application as “last chance”. How would you decide, if you need for example a hip replacement, and a stem cell therapy could be your last chance to avoid it? and may gives you the chance to heal your bones/cartilage?
    The healing of Rafael Nadals back and knee are good news and show that these therapies could be successful. (Of course these are only case reports, but successful reports).

    Or if you think of the amazing recovery of Gordie Howe. I am even more sceptic about this kind of therapy. But what would you do, if you or a member of your family has suffered a big stroke? Won’t you think about trying the same therapy as Gordie Howe did?

    I think these are all very difficult question … and I understand people, who want to try stem cell therapies.

    By the way I have read many articles about the treatment of Rafael Nadal, but no article explains the whole details. Do you may have more detailed information about the therapies? If yes, please let me know, where I could read more about the details.

    Thank you for so many interesting information

  2. Brian Sanderson

    Another thing that really annoys me is the cavalier attitude of CNS and Mark Berman when it comes to determining the reason why Mr Graham was suffering pain. Perhaps this is to be expected when a cosmetic surgeon starts treating problems that really require sophisticated knowledge of mechanics and the neuro-musculoskeletal system.

    There are two issues. First, this is not a very high standard of medical care. Second, if the treatment is experimental then one MUST have an accurate initial assessment in order to evaluate outcomes — otherwise the experiment becomes invalid.

    For the record, I am not against the notion of an informed patient paying for the privilege of contributing a data point in an experimental program. People volunteer for all sorts of stuff, in all sorts of ways, for all sorts of reasons. Some people might pay money for the privilege of participating in an arduous sporting event “to support research”. Others might put their money and their well-being on the line in some other way that more directly targets a matter of interest to them. I’ve even seen people buy sugary soft drinks in support of breast cancer — and such modern sources of sugar certainly contribute to a great many health problems, including breast cancer.

  3. I tend to believe that they are being advised by medical professionals they consult with or retain. A quicker recovery to an injury maintains their position in the sport rather than the normally recommended course of action – rest and rehab. Nadal for example has regularly suffered from injury and on many occasions took time off to recover – perhaps the usual recovery time makes it that much more difficult for these pros to regain their position.

    I think the issue is the outrageous claims on sc treatments, sc tourism et al and the lack of evidence based results to back it up. That’s pretty clear and clinical trials for all conditions are required. False advertising is a common problem across all commercial industries.

    I tend to believe there is an important distinction between disease and your average sports injury, which it seems these pros are eager to have for reasons they’re being advised on. If it’s available they’ll be 1st in line clients, especially if their peers are doing it and seen to be back in the hunt. Risks – maybe it would be worth doing a breakdown on that for readers. Is there more risk in some areas than others for example…

    What the product is and regulations surrounding that is pending in most places so the definitions are probably coming to a head and it will be interesting to see where lines are drawn and the space provided to the medical practitioner for patient specific treatments and implications on research.


  4. Hi msemporda, I did see the news on the Spanish Olympian. I suspect that the athletes are looking for ways to continue and in some cases save their careers. They are willing to take big risks and for them the money involved is not a big deal. In some cases they get free treatment for the PR that results. I wish that the clinics would be good about reporting and publishing data…otherwise we can never really know about safety and efficacy.

  5. Thanks for the comment, Brian. Over the years the titles of media pieces on stem cells have been a source of frustration.

  6. Paul have you read about the Spanish Olympian who just last week was in the media having a BM derived sc therapy, similar to the 2nd one Nadal had? http://swimswam.com/spains-belmonte-undergoing-stem-cell-treatment-for-shoulder-injury/

    Why are these elite athletes continually making this type of decision for their important careers over rehab alone?

    I believe pending regulation on trial requirements, as in the US, is similarly being considered in Europe. Scope and final details if enacted is a ?


  7. Brian Sanderson

    Both articles annoyed me.

    Tyler Graham tells us that scientists “still don’t know why a given stem cell will differentiate into one tissue and not another..”. Well that gives a totally false impression. Scientists (and some doctors) do know quite a few factors that influence some types of stem cells to differentiate into this or that tissue.

    On the other hand, Matt Perrone makes broad generalizations that paint a picture of medical doctors who dare to innovate as the bad cowboys wearing black hats and academic researchers as the good ones wearing the white hats — and the FDA drug approval process as being the only path to validity. Now there’s a lead balloon!

    I read the full title as “The Cure-All, are new stem cell therapies miracles in a bottle — or just snake oil?” Of course the title is a nonsensical arrangement of attention-seeking buzz-words. That’s how you hook readers when you really don’t have anything interesting to say. Tyler Graham is talking about stem cells that come from fat — not a bottle.

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