Fact-check: F grade for irresponsible stem cell COVID-19 cure piece

At times there’s been seriously bad journalism covering COVID-19 itself including implications of various things being a COVID cure. Of course, media coverage of stem cell research itself sometimes ends up being a train-wreck of hype too. More recently we’ve seen irresponsible journalism also around the specific idea of stem cells for COVID-19, but sometimes a new piece really takes the cake on making a mess of things.

A case study in failed biomedical journalism: implication of COVID cure

Fox31 News in Colorado has a relatively new piece that in my view gets into this train-wreck zone: “NJ man recovers from COVID-19 thanks to stem cells from Golden lab”.

This news item is like a perfect case study, as in perfectly awful in my opinion, for a university class on science policy and ethics.

vitro biopharma, stem cells for covid 19, COVID cure
Vitro Biopharma and their stem cells for COVID-19 approach gets promotional type news coverage from Fox31, which implied a COVID cure. Screenshot of Fox31 video.

What’s so bad about the piece? Let’s do a checklist.

  • Hype? Yes.
  • No real questions asked? Yes.
  • No balance? Yes.
  • Promoting a completely unproven drug for COVID-19? Yes.
  • No mention of risks? Yes.

Fact-checking quotes from the flawed article

There are some particularly frustrating parts of the news piece.

Let’s start with the title, “NJ man recovers from COVID-19 thanks to stem cells from Golden lab”.

The headline is claiming that the stem cells definitely sparked the patient’s recovery, which could be totally wrong and in my opinion is probably most likely false. The article goes on to say this:

“We were able to get permission from the FDA for compassionate use because Pablo had failed other therapies,” said Dr. Jack Zamora, CEO of Vitro Biopharma

Three doses of a stem cell therapy (AlloRX Stem Cells) was the last best hope for Rigual. The therapy worked.”

There’s no particular reason to think that particular cellular therapy was in fact his best hope.

Also, wait, how do you know it worked?

Of course, in reality there’s no good evidence the stem cells did anything. Keep in mind that that last statement about efficacy was from the journalist, not a quote from the CEO.

The piece ends, “Vitro Biopharma is working to ensure full FDA approval so more patients can benefit when known COVID-19 treatments fail.” That seems like such an oxymoronic statement to me. The unproven stem cells will definitely benefit COVID-19 patients, when known treatments fail?

What are the odds of that?

Unfortunately, the show The Doctors covered this same one patient getting the experimental stem cells  (see video above) and there was some significant hype on the show’s segment on stem cells for COVID-19 as well. Fortunately, the last minute or so of the video is more balanced and responsible.

However, if you agree that this The Doctors segment is problematic please give it a thumbs down on YouTube.

What could go wrong due to this kind of coverage?

What might be the risks of such a hypeful, unbalanced piece? A lot.

For instance, this kind of report could encourage bad behavior by unproven stem cell clinics on the COVID front, which we’ve already seen.

It may also prompt the public to take risks.

Finally, it may encourage more hype and poor biomedical journalism.

Juror is out still on approach of stem cells for COVID-19

There is still very little evidence to back up the idea of stem cells for COVID-19.

One small study from the University of Miami reported what seemed to be indications of efficacy, but there were quite a few caveats to that study so we can’t be sure of the results. Also, Mesoblast recently got discouraging news on its stem cell COVID-19 trial.

We’ll see how the dozens of trials of cells for COVID-19 turn out and I hope I’ll have been wrong to be skeptical.

Overall, getting back to the Fox31 piece, it is one of the worst media items on stem cells I’ve seen in a long time. The Doctor’s video segment was more of a mixed bag.

(As a side note, I also have a funny confession of a sort and that is that when I first read the headline for one second I thought a golden lab (dog) was a stem cell donor here somehow, which didn’t make sense. Maybe the hazards of being a dog owner. The article header means a laboratory in Golden, CO.)

4 thoughts on “Fact-check: F grade for irresponsible stem cell COVID-19 cure piece”

  1. There are multiple shots on goal using stem cells for Covid. The approach of Ricordi from Miami using Jadicell is commendable because they actually did double blind placebo controlled

    That is the way trials should be…
    Not cheap case reports

  2. Paul,
    There are multiple studies albeit small which are showing positive results when MSCs are used to treat sick Covid patients. Currently there is no therapy which can reverse covid and MSCs seem to be the exception. In fact my best friend from med school had serious lung damage from covid and after stem cell therapy he had a dramatic turn around. His CT ground glass appearance and consolidations have completely cleared up on follow up CT. VitroBiopharma is doing the right thing by getting the FDA EUA authorization and is actually not charging the patients and they need to be commended for that.
    I do agree with you that Mesoblast was a failure. They used bone marrow MSCs and passaged them too many times to be effective.

    1. I think the news article itself was the major problem here. However, biotech firms must be extremely careful in how they discuss their clinical efforts in general and related to COVID-19 in particular. In my view, even implying real efficacy let alone some major positive outcome from N=1 (or even a handful of patients) with no controls regarding a new experimental intervention being studied by a biotech (or university) is harmful.

    2. Outside of well constructed clinical trials anecdotal evidence has been shown to be unreliable (worthless many would say) when it comes to any purported treatment/intervention. If you give a thousand tic-tacs to patients and three of them get better, was it the tic-tacs? Probably not. But people close to those who got better, in absence of other interventions, might incorrectly attribute it to the tic-tacs, a tic-tac miracle of sorts. There in lies the danger of so many of these ‘I took stem cells and got better’ stories. Its not science. The outcome isn’t science.

      Sadly there are far more studies showing MSC’s have had little effect on many conditions. So much so that its clear that any therapy that works (and I believe there will be) will only be due to carefully controlled sources, methodology, and application with robust quality oversight. Just transfusing MSC’s will probably never be effective for anything, but that’s what many of these medical practitioners and ‘clinics’ do.

      At the end of the day we know the earth is round because of robust science, not because someone reported it on social media. Sadly, people today seem to take the “I have a friend/loved one, or I heard it on Social Media” as proof of a story, a thing, or an outcome.

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