August 9, 2020

The Niche

Knoepfler lab stem cell blog

2 State AG’s sue ‘Stem Cell Centers’ clinics including for alleged fraud

Some readers suggested earlier this year that I look into a clinic firm called ‘Stem Cell Centers’ with its owner Travis Autor. I didn’t have time to do much since I’ve been very busy in the lab before the state Attorney Generals of Iowa and Nebraska sued them based on a number of allegations including in the Iowa case for fraud.

This is a very significant development for the field. The suits focus both on medically unproven and non-FDA approved stem cells and exosomes.

Note that I’m planning a second post here on The Niche probably on Thursday about the key elements of the cases and what they could mean. Today’s post is more focused on the firm, owner, and media coverage on them in the context of the new AG suits in the big picture.

For background, more states have been taking action on stem cell clinics and related firms in the last year or so including North Dakota and New York. I expect this trend to continue.

2 more states take on clinics

So what are the big legal developments in Iowa and Nebraska?

According to the Huron Daily Tribune (emphasis mine):

“An Omaha health clinic that offered unproven stem cell treatments for joint pain, erectile dysfunction and even Alzheimer’s disease bilked consumers in Iowa and Nebraska out of at least $2.8 million, state officials said Thursday.

The attorneys general of Iowa and Nebraska each filed lawsuits against Regenerative Medicine and Anti-Aging Institutes of Omaha, alleging that company officials made misleading statements about the effectiveness of their treatments…

The lawsuits also name co-owners Travis and Emily Autor, who are married, and two other companies they own: Omaha Stem Cells, LLC, and Stem Cell Centers LLC. The Iowa lawsuit also names Michael Pavey, a partial owner of the company who lives in Spokane, Washington.”

This is part of a broader trend of concerning regenerative clinic marketing that has vastly expanded in recent years. In my opinion, some of the regenerative clinic marketing in the U.S. takes advantage of patients.

Travis Autor, Stem Cell Centers
Travis Autor, CEO of Stem Cell Centers. Screenshot from YouTube video.

Non-physicians running regenerative clinics

One of the more striking things about the universe of unproven stem cell clinics (now often selling exosomes too) is just how many of the people running such clinics and even doing procedures on patients are not actual physicians.

Also, even amongst those with some kind of health-care affiliation, many stem cell clinic owners have run into issues with licensing boards or other regulatory officials.

Along those lines, as I started doing some reading on Stem Cell Centers I noted that Autor is not an MD or DO. Media have described him as a former chiropractor who lost his license (more below).

‘Stem Cell Centers’ and Autor

The Spokesman Review, a newspaper in Spokane, WA, did a fairly deep dive last year into Autor and his Stem Cell Centers, and in my view what they found wasn’t pretty. The investigative piece by Thomas Clouse had a question for a title: “Stem cell therapy clinics are big business in Spokane area, but are desperate patients being sold snake oil?”

Gary Larson The Far Side What Dogs Hear, Stem Cell Centers
Gary Larson The Far Side What Dogs Hear. Is this how stem cell clinics interpret what academics say?

Here’s one of the more striking passages from Clouse’s piece (emphasis mine):

“Stem Cell Centers CEO Travis Autor insists that his stem cell therapy works. He claims to have treated between 8,000 and 10,000 patients in the seven clinics he and his wife own nationwide. Autor has published dozens of testimonials by people who claim that the injections cured their COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease), knee pain, back pain, neuropathy and arthritis.

“When people get their life back, they just want to share it with people,” Autor said. “Stem cells are a darn viable option. So when we have academia saying blah, blah, blah, blah, it’s just not true. These guys get a lot of press. That hurts our business.

Let’s unpack this.

First, where’s the evidence that “his stem cell therapy” works or are, as he is quoted, “a darn viable option”? I don’t see much. A few testimonials, which are basically an advertising approach, not concrete scientific support for a medical treatment.

Also, he and his wife have (or had) seven clinics selling unproven stuff, making this a moderate-sized stem cell clinic chain. I guess their marketing efforts are quite successful, but in my view this is very risky for patients.

And then what specific academics could he possibly be talking about in that quote?  Me? Leigh Turner?

It is striking as well that he refers to what we academics say as “blah, blah, blah, blah”. I do wonder if that is how stem cell clinics folks hear what we say. It also reminded me of that Gary Larson cartoon above. How often do people hear other people’s words as, “blah, blah, blah, blah”? A lot.

More about Travis Autor

From the Spokesman Review:

“Travis Autor used to be known as Travis Broughton before he agreed in 2009 to allow the state of Washington to suspend his chiropractic credentials for 10 years to settle allegations of double-billing, having sex with a patient and smoking marijuana during lunch breaks at his business in Spokane Valley.

According to the agreement he signed, Broughton could have applied for reinstatement by 2016 as long as he underwent sex-offender treatment evaluation, paid a $10,000 fine, passed two years of random drug and alcohol tests, and attended support-group meetings.

Broughton continues to claim he lost his lucrative chiropractic business based on the false accusations of an ex-girlfriend, and now, “I’ve got a big target on my back.”

The background here raises serious concerns in my view.

Also, a name change is something I’ve seen with other stem cell clinic folks as well over the past decade. Sometimes the name that is changed is the person at the clinic, but more often clinic firms change their business names or reincarnate entirely as new firms named something else.

The state AG lawsuits

You can read the Iowa AG PR here and the Nebraska AG PR here, and the actual suits here and here. I asked FDA legal expert Professor Patti Zettler for her big picture take on this and she said:

“These lawsuits serve as another reminder that FDA is not necessarily the only regulator of these kinds of clinics. States also can take enforcement actions when their laws and regulations are violated, including consumer protection laws, as is alleged in these cases, and medical practice laws and regulations.”

One of the more concerning but not surprising elements of this situation is the Iowa suit’s allegation that the marketing specifically targeted older patients, something we’ve seen before with other clinics too. For instance, when I personally went to a stem cell clinic informercial seminar a few years back (see my Stem Cell Translational Medicine paper on this experience), most of the 30 or so people in attendance were seniors.

Both Iowa and Nebraska allege that patients paid big money and were “defrauded”. From the Huron Daily:

“Overall, state officials said, the company defrauded consumers out of at least $2 million in Nebraska and $800,000 in Iowa.”

So what are the clinics selling and just how much money were the firm as well as the owners making from vulnerable patients?

Stem Cell Centers offerings and millions in profits

In looking through the company’s website, I don’t see convincing evidence for what they are selling. They seem to offer three products or at least place strong emphasis on these on the site (concentrated cord blood, bone marrow cells, an amniotic cells) and mention a variety of health conditions.

At a company infomercial seminar, a salesman giving a presentation mentioned these conditions: asthma, bronchitis, emphysema, neck pain and neuropathy.

Exosomes are also in the mix it seems as they are frequently mentioned in both state AG suits.

None of these products for the specific conditions mentioned are FDA approved and in my view some uses of certain products by the firm for specific conditions might raise compliance issues with the agency.

Nonetheless the firm is generating huge profits according to the Spokesman Review article:

“Last year, the company, officially based in Post Falls with a clinic in Coeur d’Alene, grossed $15 million in revenue from their seven stem cell clinics that are located from Florida to Arizona. The Autors say they only take 7%, or just over $1 million, as salaries for themselves.”

I’m guessing much of the rest goes to investors, but still $1 million a year for the Autors for selling unproven stem cells/exosomes seems like quite a haul to me, especially if it’s possible few to none of the customers received something safe and useful. There is more info on the AG actions in an Omaha.com piece here. It suggests the earnings were smaller, but it’s hard to be sure given all the different firms involved.

Infomercials, customer brain chemistry

Another notable thing from all these news pieces is that these clinic/marketing folks were doing a vast number of stem cell infomercials:

“The lawsuits allege that the clinics made deceptive and misleading claims in advertisements and in at least 84 live events in Nebraska and more than 90 in Iowa from April 2018 to September 2019.”

Between the two states that’s around a seminar every few days. The Iowa AG PR also included this passage suggesting that Autor had some unusual strategies to get more money from customers for unproven stem cells (emphasis mine):

“Once somebody has, you know, agreed to 9,000 or to 15,000 (dollars), getting another 1,000 is easy. It really is,” Autor told employees. “So, the psychology of sales: Once a person commits to a large purchase, they get a huge endorphin rush in the pleasure spot of our brain, called the brain reward cascade system. And the endorphins are released, and we are like ‘ah…’ … Um, so, when a patient gets to 15,000 dollars and they get that rush, we’re gonna offer them a second ability to have that rush again.”

How can any of that be in patients’ best interest? To me this sounds more like money-generating marketing than medicine.

Bigger picture

Unfortunately, this kind of clinic situation can be found all over the U.S. now. Stem Cell Centers alone reportedly has had locations in more than half a dozen states, and there are many other similar firms.

I hope that more states will take action against these clinics and suppliers.


Important note. While I find many seriously troubling aspects to these clinics and the backgrounds/statements of their leadership, I personally don’t directly know one way or another about the allegations such as fraud made in the AG lawsuits We’ll have to closely watch how the suits progress and I’ll do future posts on the court developments, which in theory could include the defendants prevailing.

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