The 60 Minutes show here in the U.S. has done sobering segments over the years on risky, unproven stem cell clinics, but now there is a new episode of 60 Minutes Australia that is the polar opposite: it mostly made a mess of things with its fluffy coverage of the story of a wonderful little girl with cerebral palsy receiving an unproven stem cell transplant at a clinic in Mexico.
The new show segment, which you can watch in two parts (see below) on YouTube, comes off as very aspirational and doesn’t ask enough even moderately solid questions by a mile. Instead, when potentially helpful questions seem to be asked, it feels that it is done simply as token “tough questions” not really expecting serious answers.
The 60 Minutes Australia reporter Liam Bartlett who did the stem cell episode wasn’t balanced in his approach to the story. He didn’t probe at all in his interview with the clinic provider in Mexico, Ana Carolina, who claims positive results after transplanting bone marrow stem cells into kids with cerebral palsy at the BIOSS clinic. Bartlett just basically accepted her answers. He didn’t ask about risks. What about past negative outcomes from clinic customers? There was also no mention that I heard of the cost.
Between the interview of the Mexican stem cell provider Carolina and the time devoted to the family’s journey (which is emotionally powerful), there wasn’t much time left for the stem cell expert interviewed on the show, Australia’s Professor Ernst Wolvetang, to talk. Instead of asking Wolvetang more questions on stem cells and risks, or bringing up the hundreds of unproven clinics around the world or people hurt by stem cell clinics such as the multiple people blinded here in the U.S., Liam Bartlett at one point did an emotional karate chop on the scientist asking him if he’d send his kid to Mexico if their family were in that situation. Fair question? Maybe, but it didn’t add to the goal one would hope for such a show of having some balance. Also, why not interview more Australian stem cell experts such as Professor John Rasko and others? I reached out to Dr. Rasko, who had this to say about the 60 Minutes episode:
“The 60 Minutes sensationalisation of this story is simply disgraceful on many levels.I feel great empathy for this desperate family and anyone suffering from unmet medical needs. We let the family down by not properly counseling them, whereas 60 Minutes seems to be egging them on for a story which I wonder may have helped to fund the trip to Mexico.But 60 Minutes Australia is promoting the false hope offered by an entirely unproven Mexican clinic – the risks are very significant .I cant help but feel a great sadness that the media seems to feel obliged to advertise risky experiments on children.They offer little hope of benefit to anyone – little hope to the child but with health risks, significant costs to the family or their community, and no benefit to anyone else with cerebral palsy.”
I also feel empathy for the family and others in similar situations. In addition, I want to stress that I don’t judge the parents here at all. I wish the patient and her family all the best. (Note that although the show mentions the girl’s name and the family name, I’m not including their names in this post.)
But the journalists messed up.
What went wrong with this 60 Minutes Australia piece? Did Bartlett and/or his producer go into the story looking for an implied happy ending? Were they won over by the amazing little girl at the center of the story and her loving family?
It wasn’t outright hype, but I’m betting the show will function like an advertisement, sending more customers to that clinic in Mexico that is experimenting on kids with cerebral palsy and other conditions. 60 Minutes Australia has also been hyping their stem cell segment on Twitter, not mentioning risks that I saw.
Speaking of ads and more people going to unproven clinics, one popped up on YouTube (see above) for unproven stem cells for cerebral palsy right while I was watching the show. Other places selling unproven stem cells for kids for a variety of other health issues including autism also aggressively advertise on the web as well and I believe they generally are focused on profits.
The end of the show implied that the stem cells had helped the little girl, but really we don’t know that. Note that the 60 Minutes Australia stem cell show was called “The Big Step” perhaps invoking the unproven idea that the little girl took a big step because of the stem cells and/or it was a big step for her parents to decide to go this route.
So can stem cells help cerebral palsy?
I hope that some day that’s the reality, but so far it’s not looking that promising in terms of data from appropriately designed clinical trials. For example, results from a Duke study last year were mostly discouraging. There are other ongoing clinical trials that should prove whether such an approach can be safe and effective. Different groups are testing a variety of stem cell types.
Right now it’s a shot in the dark. It shouldn’t be sold or even unintentionally encouraged by puff pieces.