We need more investigations of for-profit stem cell clinics selling what some view as ‘snake oil.’ Over the years I’ve mainly resisted using terms like “snake oil,” but that phrase is being used more often and more recently I think we need to be blunt about what is being sold.
Part of effectively countering the worst of the clinics is for the media and others to do probing investigations. We need to shine some major sunlight on their practices, which then helps inform both patients and decisions by regulatory bodies like the FDA, FTC, state boards, and potentially even law enforcement.
It is hopeful to see several recent media pieces taking a healthy, critical look in this area.
Update: Here’s yet another investigative report, this one from CBS in Los Angeles, that just came out today on chiropractors (atTwins Chiropractic and Physical Medicine) selling unproven stem cells and also includes hidden video footage. Get this, reportedly the clinic pitch man Israel Matos who does the informercials is an actor who made obviously false statements during the seminar. What’s refreshing about this report though is that a 90-year old attendee of the seminar did her own research and exposed what was going on there. Check it out.
Over at Medium, science writer Karen Weintraub has a new piece rather bluntly titled, “‘Snake Oil’ Stem Cell Clinics Peddle False Hope for High Prices.” She in part focuses on patient Doris Tyler who lost her vision after going to a stem cell clinic in the US. Weintraub’s piece quotes stem cell scientist Sean Morrison, past President of the International Society for Stem Cell Research (ISSCR):
“Snake oil salesmen capitalize on the fact that people see reports on stem cells,” says Sean Morrison, a former president of the International Society for Stem Cell Research, adding that many clinics offer therapies that haven’t been proven to work and, biologically speaking, don’t even make sense. “Even many physicians are not sophisticated enough to understand that there are many kinds of stem cells.”
This other recent news story from News 5 in Cleveland, OH includes hidden camera video clips of over-the-top clinic claims at infomercial seminars. The investigation focused on chiropractors involved in clinics selling unproven “stem cell” offerings to vulnerable patients. These may not even really be stem cells at all, but it’s hard to say. You can see my recent piece here calling on chiropractors and their state oversight boards to stop the exploding area of chiropractic office stem cell injections.
Most often the patients these days targeted by clinics are senior citizens. Remarkably, News 5 reported that the head of the Ohio chiropractic board, Greg Palkowski, himself appears to run or be involved a stem cell clinic. That clinic’s regenerative medicine page even quotes FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, which seems to me to be an unwise move, but one we’ve seen in the past from other clinics including in one case in a big newspaper ad.
A Chicago news team also did an investigation that they recently reported. There are some common themes in these investigations. The Chicago one also includes a chiropractor angle discussing statements a reported clinic owner and chiropractor, Dr. Jill Howe. They quote Howe from a promotional video:
“It’s injected into the area that’s injured,” she said, and then will go in and “regenerate tissue that you’re missing so you can get new cartilage, you can get new knees, you can get new shoulders, new nerves.”
That sounds like hype in my opinion and I don’t believe there is good science to back up those claims. This kind of skepticism is the consensus in the stem cell research field. The Chicago news piece also quotes Sean Morrison:
“One of the things that we see among people selling fake stem cell therapies is they jump in early without testing whether something is safe and effective and start selling it to desperate patients,” Morrison said. “Our belief at the International Society for Stem Cell Research is that there are many companies operating in the United States that are selling fake stem cell therapies that are not legal under FDA regulations.”
More investigations by news teams are ongoing and will shed additional light on the worst clinics, which again I think can rightly be called snake oil clinics. Along with the bad press as lawsuits and documented patient harms accumulate, you’d think at some point a potential Achilles heel for the worst clinics and their providers would be inability to get malpractice insurance.