Fact-Checking Panama stem cell institute: cost, safety, efficacy, docs

Somehow time has flown by so that I’ve been around for ages in the stem cell universe and some unproven stem cell clinic type firms, like the well-known Panama stem cell clinic that sells autism “treatments”, are also long-timers.

It’s been an odd parallel existence for more than a decade.

The Stem Cell Institute Panama, Panama stem cells
The Stem Cell Institute in Panama. Google reviews photo.

Today’s post is focused on this Panama stem cell clinic. Think of it as a fact-check or a scientific review of a sort. Overall, I believe there are serious reasons for concern about The Stem Cell Institute.

What’s in this article

Long-time stem cell clinics | The Stem Cell Institute in Panama | What they sell | Who works at The Stem Cell Institute? | Lack of expertise & specialty training? | Lack of data | Cost of stem cell therapy in Panama $16,000-$30,000 and up | Take home messageReferences

Quick Article Summary and Claim Review. Stem cells are a still unproven approach to autism and other conditions. The Stem Cell Institute in Panama claims that umbilical cord stem cells can help autistic children and people with other conditions. In my view there are no strong data to support this claim, particularly on autism. The most rigorous study to date by Duke suggests no consistent benefit. There are definite risks too and the procedures are expensive. You should consult your child’s pediatrician.

Long-time stem cell clinics

Both the Panama clinic place, run by Neil Riordan and called simply enough The Stem Cell Institute, Texas stem cell clinic Celltex, and the Regenexx clinic brand come to mind in this long-termer category. These three firms are quite different though. I’ve written many times before about Celltex and a bit about Regenexx, but less so about The Stem Cell Institute. My most recent item on this Panama place was related to the puzzling threads between them and the Duke Autism Program.

The Stem Cell Institute aka the Panama stem cell clinic

There are stem cell clinics all over the world, but some draw more attention and customers than others. I also view some as posing potentially higher or lower risks on different levels.

The Stem Cell Institute in Panama strikes me as risky on some specific levels such as having many children getting unproven cellular injections as part of their business model. This place seems particularly successful with their PR too.

I don’t know about you, but for me the name “institute” implies a non-profit research institution, but to the best of my knowledge The Stem Cell Institute is a for-profit. While it does some research, I don’t see that as its primary mission.

The Stem Cell Institute sells unproven stem cell type offerings for many conditions., Panama Stem Cell
The Stem Cell Institute in Panama sells unproven stem cell type offerings for many conditions. Some are more worrisome than others including the menu items that involve experimental injections into kids.

What they sell

The Stem Cell Institute offers injections for a wide menu of health conditions using umbilical cord and other kinds of cells. You can see a screenshot I took from their website recently to get a sense of their marketing.

It’s strikingly diverse, raising the question for me of how one place can purportedly have the expertise to try to treat so many different conditions.

To cover all of these conditions with care and expertise I’d say that you’d need a neurologist, an immunologist, an orthopedist, a cardiologist, and pediatric physician specialists of several kinds.

Do they have the needed medical staff with board certifications in so many different specialties?

Who works at The Stem Cell Institute?

In regard to the above question, who are the doctors and other staff at the Panama stem cell clinic?

Last I checked their website, they listed 7 physicians in total including a medical director, a clinical trials research physician, and staff physicians.

Only the first 3 doctors listed have bios describing their training. Do they have the needed expertise?

Lack of expertise & specialty training?

Of these 3, the Medical Director, Jorge Paz-Rodriguez, MD, appears to be an internist. Hernan H. Hernandez, MD may be a hematologist.  Dr. Cindy Leu may be a general practitioner. I wasn’t able to clear up if she has a specialty.

The clinical trials doctor listed, Giselle Fernandez, MD, also might be a GP, but I’m not positive. As to the staff physicians, I was not able to determine if they have any specialties or are GPs despite looking around on the web and watching some videos. Leader Neil Riordan is a Ph.D., not an M.D.

Overall, as a result of the lack of information and the nature of what I could find, in my opinion, it does not seem like this clinic clearly has the needed expertise to treat so many medical conditions and patients ranging from pediatric to geriatric. In my view, this increases risks for patients.

If these Stem Cell Institute physicians have more specialty training than I could find, I will update this post.

Lack of rigorous, conclusive data

I also view the offerings of The Stem Cell Institute as lacking in rigorous data to back them up. Neil Riordan has some publications, but the research in these papers relevant to what they are selling is not convincing at all to me. It does not show that the stem cell offerings, such as umbilical cord MSCs, actually work. The papers also do not indicate that they are definitely safe for the conditions being marketed.

The clinical studies generally do not have placebo controls, randomization, or double-blinding.  If you are developing an as yet unproven cellular therapy, it may be fine to have early phase trials without placebos, etc., but if you are already marketing and injecting folks with this unproven stuff and charging for it, it’s an entirely different situation. The Stem Cell Institute seems to me to be putting the cart before the horse. Note that while others have done research on cord blood cells for autism including Duke, the data are generally very discouraging.

Cost of stem cell therapy in Panama: $16,000-$30,000 and up

It is expensive to go to the Stem Cell Institute. Their own website mentions the cost as follows, “$15,825 USD for children and $23,150 for adults.” An important paper this year in Cytology by Jeremy Snyder and Leigh Turner, focusing in part on reverberations between the Stem Cell Institute and Duke, also discussed cost and fit into this general price range.

Like many stem cell clinics abroad and even in the US, the cost often ends up being a package including a hotel stay and ground transportation.

There are also many fundraising campaigns on GoFundMe that mention Panama stem cells and sometimes include patients mentioning about what they paid. All of this is generally consistent with a price range of $16,000-$30,000.

As with other clinics, the cost can go much higher than what is stated. Factors influencing cost include the number of injections and the type of condition. If you get several injections or go on multiple occasions over the course of months or years, the costs can go way up, even into the high tens of thousands.

Also, one should factor in the odds of attaining success in the medical condition that is the problem and with unproven stem cells the odds of real documented success in my view are very low. Then there are risks as well.

Take home message

Overall, in my view there is a low probability of efficacy from what is being sold at this firm in Panama and we can’t be sure about safety. At least some of the cells being sold are amplified in a lab, potentially increasing safety risks. As I said earlier, I also worry about the apparent lack of relevant (and I’d say crucially needed) medical specialty training.

As a Ph.D. I cannot give medical advice, but as a stem cell biologist and long observer of clinical research in this arena as well as of unproven stem cell clinics, I personally would not go to this clinic or have a friend or loved one go.

If you have complaints about the Stem Cell Institute in Panama I’d like to learn more about what your concerns are.

References

  1. Boosted by celebrity endorsements and a controversial research program, clinics are peddling stem cell autism treatments questioned by experts, Tom Porter, Business Insider, January 2021.
  2. Experts question rationale for stem cell trial for autism, Hannah Furfaro, Spectrum, July 25, 2019.
  3. Should You Bank Your Baby’s Cord Blood?, Dana Najjar, New York Times, December 18, 2020.
  4. Infusion of human umbilical cord tissue mesenchymal stromal cells in children with autism spectrum disorder. Sun JM, Dawson G, Franz L, Howard J, McLaughlin C, Kistler B, Waters-Pick B, Meadows N, Troy J, Kurtzberg J. Stem Cells Transl Med. 2020 Oct;9(10):1137-1146. doi: 10.1002/sctm.19-0434.
  5. Stem cells and autism search, PubMed, February 2021.
  6. Crowdfunding, stem cell interventions and autism spectrum disorder: comparing campaigns related to an international “stem cell clinic” and US academic medical center, Jeremy Snyder and Leigh Turner, Cytology, March 2021.

26 thoughts on “Fact-Checking Panama stem cell institute: cost, safety, efficacy, docs”

  1. Is the stem cell targeted treatment for one diagnose only or is it a sort of will treat everything? If somone has several autoimmune diseases, along with anaemia for example (not proper functioning of bone marrow), so does the stem cell treat everything? Can anybody explain plaese?

    1. @Azza,
      Good questions. No, stem cells are not able to treat everything. That’s a fake claim by some clinics that just want your money.
      More specifically on autoimmune diseases, even there it seems unlikely based on the data that I’ve seen that one stem cell treatment would help several of those at the same time.

      It’s hypothetically possible it could help more than one. In this case I’m more specifically talking about HSCT which also uses chemo therapy. This is a very risky procedure though and still considered experimental by many. it’s not approved in the US for autoimmune diseases. See more here: https://ipscell.com/2022/09/what-is-hsct-its-possible-roles-in-ms-treatment/

      Regular MSCs are unlikely to help autoimmune diseases in a lasting way.
      Talk to your doctor.

  2. Just finished my treatment at the Institute. I was treated for arthritis in both of my shoulders. In less than a week have already experienced significant reduction of pain and an increase in mobility.I’m told the full effect should peak in about 8 weeks.

    This “Fact Check” seems to be a advance assertion/conclusion in search of evidence “Are you still beating your wife” as the old example goes. You motive seems very transparent when you final line is “ If you have complaints about the Stem Cell Institute in Panama I’d like to learn more about what your concerns are.”

    Your disinterest in actually hearing about successful treatment and satisfaction with the institue by asking for past patients to reach out with positive news is an obvious omission of a 2-sided “fact check”

    I would offer up the following personal fact check. I was at the Panama City Hilton hotel which is collocated in the same building as the institutes and where the patients typically stay while in treatment. I had the opportunity to personally hear from many returning and first time patients and vignettes about their experience. The information shared with me antidotally was overwhelmingly positive for treatments for both adults and children.

    1. @Mike,
      Thanks for writing about your experience. It’s great that a few people may feel they were helped, but you need strong data on efficacy and safety before you start trying to profit off of an experimental “therapy”. In my view as a stem cell biologist who has read the research papers from this place, it just doesn’t have the needed data. Their studies are preliminary, weak in design or show no clear benefit. I think a lot of what is going on is placebo effect. It’s an awfully expensive placebo effect to buy.

      Where I get even more concerned is about the supposed autism treatments sold there because we don’t know the long-term risks of this kind of cell therapy in kids. Also, the clinical trials on cord cells for autism including by Duke have clearly shown no benefit.

  3. I feel hard on both elbows jammed my shoulders. This resulted in arthritis and cartridge dissappearing. I would be an ideal candidate to do a comparison study between getting results from stem cell repair in one shoulder and seeing if there was any change in the shoulder without stem cell injections. I would be happy, more than happy to provide xrays so we could see if the institute is really providing benefits thru stem cell injections. Tom Ford D Green Bay, WI usa

  4. Mel Gibson got a great result for his father, Hutton. 92 and about to dies, he lived to 101. See the YouTube video with Mel, Joe Rogan and Mel’s doctor.

  5. Hi Bradley, will appreciate your comments on your experience in Panama if you have gone through the process already. Thanks
    Pepe Buraschi(Facebook)

  6. Gibson’s father (who was treated) lived about another 10 years and died after age 100. I looked it up on the internet.

  7. I would be interested in how you are since your treatment, I am considering going here for treatment for my RA. I too am on very expensive biologic therapy and two other meds for this, Medicare does not cover the cost of the biologic. Pls let me know what you think.

  8. I am currently at Dr Riordan’s Clinic in Panama. I agree with your statement. Also, the person that wrote this article (quite obvious to me) demonstrates a strong dislike of the Stem Cell Institute in Panama. I have 6 autoimmunes, 4 viruses along with other health issues. If Professor Paul K. Can do any better then I invite you to do so. Guarantee you can Not!!!!

  9. this is definitely a 2 sided issue. I have suffered from RA for years. I have done some research. stem cells have been around since the 80s. anybody remember Christopher reeves, He was a huge advocate back then for stem cells. he went in front of congress and testified. the answer he received in short was not the potential danger, it was the effect on healthcare in general. healing people with major disabilities would adversely affect the dynamic in health care research drug development physical therapy ect. The panama clinic isn’t the only one doing this. China. Europe, Japan. they have been doing this for years. today you can have deformed genes removed from an unborn baby, specify the sex, but yet believe that isolating a MSC and replicating it wouldn’t work. i am treated with a biologic med. its just under 100k per infusion, it was approved on 1997 along with 17 others. 25 years later the cost is even higher. the US doesn’t have the best healthcare in the world, they have the most regulated. its all about money. the panama clinic has been doing this for 15 years i believe. the first kid they treated for autism graduated from high school this year. if you doubt the efface of this product, ask yourself why is mayo clinic now treating people with MSC. I have applied to the panama clinic. i will gladly update you on the treatment and results.

  10. Alexander Brown

    Missing: An elephant in the room. Restrictions on Stem Cell Research and Practices in the USA. For Political/Religious interference not scientific reasons. The best science includes freedom of research. This also creates a Bias incentive for the American Clinics who are limited in their offerings. it creates a nationalistic Bias incentive in research reported.as valid A major problem in American HealthCare. We see Paul K. is also not an MD but a PHD. Is the criticism valid for Riordan but not Knoepfler ?

    I suggest an article like this should also contact it’s subject to allow their response.

  11. Mel Gibson goes here. He has all the money in the world, he has a research team that looks into these things I am sure. He chose this place over Cedars for a reason.

    1. Yes, applying for IND clearance is the right way to go for this kind of product. It’d be interesting to see that data and how strong it was. Some other recent FDA IND clearances for COVID-19 have real raised concerns, but this shouldn’t be under the influence of pandemic urgency. Thanks for the heads up. I’m going to keep following this one.

  12. The marketing around these ‘treatments’ is slick too. Lots of testimonials, claims of clinical trials, but no real competent authority oversight and no peer review of raw data. They tout when they think something works, downplay or don’t talk about when the ‘treatments fail to yield any effect (common apparently), and squelch any talk about problems or adverse reactions that may be associated with the care. All in all it seems pretty sketchy to anyone with science or medical background.

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