To stem cell clinics: do your homework & take FDA “current thinking” seriously

FDA draft guidanceOne of the difficult things about the regulatory sphere that covers stem cells in the US is that many aspects are confusing or puzzling both to the public and so-called experts. We’ve been talking through some of the questions that come up in this area in posts and comments on this blog.

  • What does a warning letter really mean? What triggers it?
  • Why do some businesses selling stem cells get inspected and others don’t?
  • What do some entities get warning letters over the years, while others don’t?
  • What weight does a draft guideline have?
  • How about a finalized one?
  • If a business disagrees with an FDA guideline or action, what should it do?
  • If a business operates without FDA approval (maybe because they disagree with the FDA) when it seems that it should need that approval and yet the FDA takes no action, does that mean anything?

The list goes on and on.

It’s kind of like trying to read tealeaves. One of the FDA reforms I advocated for in my book, Stem Cells: An Insider’s Guide, is more clarity and better communication.

Despite the many questions and confusion out there, I would say one thing is clear: Take FDA “current thinking” very seriously.

While current thinking as articulated in guidances (draft or otherwise) is not formally equivalent to a regulation, it would seem to have the power to trigger action based on the historical record.

Therefore, one broader lesson in this arena would seem to be that the FDA can pull the trigger on actions like visits and warning letters based on their current thinking even if that current thinking is not formally crystalized beyond draft guidances or even without any draft guidances. For instance, it seems pretty clear that the FDA right now views SVF as a drug and while it may not have done much about this action wise yet, the odds are that such action will be coming sooner or later. The same goes for non-homologous use of bone marrow and amniotic stem cells such as for neurologic conditions. In other words, what the FDA staff think is going to be their basis for actions. SVF

As a result, it kind of goes both ways in the sense that guidances (draft or otherwise) are not formal regulations and “only” reflect current FDA thinking, but at the same time “FDA current thinking” shouldn’t be underestimated in terms of importance as it clearly can play a big role as the basis for action.

Too often I’ve heard clinics or other advocates say things like, “these are just draft guidelines” or “the FDA hasn’t been clear on that yet”. The reality is that no matter what any of us might like (e.g. increased FDA clarity), it is not the FDA’s responsibility to make sure everything is crystal clear for every stem cell clinic out there. Rather, it is the physicians’ responsibility to do their homework on the FDA and all relevant regulations, current thinking, etc.

If a clinic wants to challenge the FDA I can respect that if it is done responsibly, but it is a very different matter and a risky game to do such a challenge operationally by administering what by all accounts the FDA considers to be unapproved drugs into patients and then waiting to see if anything happens on the regulatory front.

This game of stem cell chicken is particularly risky if you are “treating” medical conditions outside of your specialty and do not have any rigorous training in stem cells as well as having little if any expertise in FDA regulatory affairs. And, no, a weekend resort or other similar quickie “course” on stem cells doesn’t really count.

FDA warning points to tougher regulation of fat stem cells & clinics

FDA logoLast week I blogged about how the FDA had issued a warning letter to a series of three co-owned fat stem cell clinics across the US.

What does this FDA action mean on the broader stem cell clinic arena, particularly to those selling fat stem cells?

The FDA is still in the process of getting public comment and finalizing draft guidelines related to stem cell clinical products including fat stem cells aka adipose stem cells and stromal vascular fraction or SVF.

Even so, the FDA just issued this new warning letter at least partially related to SVF to a series of co-owned clinics in CA, FL and NY here in the US going under the names Irvine Stem Cell Treatment Center, Miami Stem Cell Treatment Center, and Manhattan Regenerative Medicine Medical Group.

In the letter the FDA explicitly calls SVF a biological drug in this context and mentions that there’s no IND and no BLA (for more on these key acronyms see here) at the clinics.

As discussed in the comments on my first post on this warning letter, the FDA language is a bit puzzling in the language used in the part calling the SVF a drug. The letter first mentions several target conditions as an implied possible reason for the definition as a drug and then only later indirectly mentions more than minimal manipulation as possibly involved. Non-homologous use is also mentioned. Overall this letter is not very clear. A helpful FDA reform would be a commitment to clear writing in its public communication.

Still the relatively unambiguous wording in the letter calling SVF a drug here is striking given that the FDA again has not to my knowledge finalized its guidance on SVF. It’s hard not to read the letter as meaning the FDA has every intention of defining SVF as a drug in many if not all cases.

This is a big deal because scores of stem cell clinics in the US are injecting SVF into patients on a daily basis without any FDA approval, licensing, etc. It’s not clear why these three co-owned clinics got the first FDA warning letter in the last few years on stem cells when there are all these other clinics doing very much the same thing. That’s also puzzling and leaves an important open question. More broadly as far as I know there’s no public information on how the FDA assesses which entities to focus its limited resources upon at any one given time.

What does this mean for all those other fat stem cell clinics out there? It’s bad news for them as the FDA could and really should be taking a close look at them too. The FDA is slow at times to take action as I’ve been critical of them about in the past, but once they get going, those not following the rules have reason to be concerned.

What about those recent still only draft FDA guidances (e.g. see a nice piece by Alexey on the situation with fat stem cells here)? I suppose they could change or take a long time to be finalized, but this warning letter can be viewed as a strong signal that the guidances are unlikely to change in their core points.

One of the largest collective users of SVF in the stem cell clinic world is Cell Surgical Network (CSN), with whom Irvine was previously affiliated. I contacted CSN more than a week ago by email for comment on the warning letter and to get their perspective on this development, but have not received a reply. To my knowledge, CSN has not been subject directly to FDA action, but I do not know when the apparent split with the Irvine clinics occurred.

Until more information about what the FDA is doing & thinking (at least as expressed by their written words) hits the  public domain, the key puzzles mentioned above will remain open for speculation. However, this letter possibly signals a major turning point for regulation of clinical use of adipose stem cells, particularly in the clinic realm.

FDA Warning Letter to Irvine Stem Cell Treatment Center Clinics Across US

The FDA has sent a Warning Letter to the Irvine Stem Cell Treatment Center. The leader of Irvine Stem Cell Treatment Center is Dr. Thomas Gionis and the letter was addressed to him. Interestingly, this letter, dated December 30, 2015, contains redactions.

At one time this clinic was part of the larger Cell Surgical Network (CSN) chain of clinics, but it seems it is no longer listed on the CSN website. You can see, however, that Gionis and Irvine are listed on this archived page from the CSN website.

Both publicly and on this blog, CSN in the past argued that it doesn’t need FDA approval for its stem cell product or its use (herehere and here), but recent FDA draft guidances imply otherwise in my opinion. Note that this new Warning Letter does not mention CSN.

You can see a screenshot of the top of the Warning Letter below.

This is post number one in a series on the breaking news on this development.

Gionis Irvine FDA Warning Letter

A Warning Letter is a serious form of FDA action. For instance, the Texas stem cell clinic Celltex received one and later moved its clinical operations to Mexico in part as a result. It’s unclear at this time what impact if any the Warning Letter will have on Irvine Stem Cell Treatment Center (note that it has multiple locations in NY, CA, and FL, each mentioned in the letter), but it’s definitely bad news for the clinics in my view.

The Letter outlines three major areas of problems:

  • (1) the adipose stem cell product being used (stromal vascular fraction or SVF)  is an unapproved biological drug
  • (2) non-homologous use of the product
  • (3) more than a dozen specific problems related to the production of the stem cell product SVF at the Irvine facility that the FDA termed, “a number of significant objectionable conditions”.

All three general areas of issues are serious.

The first two problems related to the FDA defining the SVF as a drug product and its use in what the FDA calls a nonhomologous fashion probably will have the broadest impact across the US. More than one hundred clinics use SVF in the US without having any FDA approval or licensing, and they use it in similar ways to Irvine that are likely to be deemed nonhomologous use as well.

As a result, this Warning Letter should be a wakeup call to these clinics. Despite the quietness of the FDA in the last two years on stem cell clinics, this could indicate a period of greater activity has begun.

The section defining the SVF as a drug in the letter is this one, emphasis mine:

“Your SVF product is intended to treat a variety of diseases and conditions, including, but not limited to, autism, Parkinson’s disease, pulmonary fibrosis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), multiple sclerosis (MS), cerebral palsy, and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), and is therefore a drug under section 201(g) of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (the FD&C Act) [21 U.S.C. 321(g)] and a biological product as defined in section 351(i) of the Public Health Service Act (PHS Act) [42 U.S.C. 262(i)]. It is also a human cell, tissue, or cellular and tissue­based product (HCT/P) as defined in 21 CFR 1271.3(d).”

The relevant section on non-homologous use:

“In addition, your SVF product fails to meet 21 CFR 1271.10(a)(2)’s criterion that the HCT/P be “intended for homologous use only, as reflected by the labeling, advertising, or other indications of the manufacturer’s objective intent.”

The other dozen or so issues with the production and the facility practices of Irvine Stem Cell Treatment Center are quite significant as well in my view and include sterility practices.

The FDA inspected several Irvine Center clinic locations, but apparently not the one that seemed to kinda pop up last year in my neighborhood here in Sacramento. I’m not sure if this local one exists currently.

Irvine has responded to some ongoing issues raised related to the series of inspections, but not sufficiently says the FDA. Notably, the section on responses included this partially redacted phrase:

“you have terminated your relationship with the (b)(4)“.

I wonder if this refers to CSN? Hard to know.

Even though this Warning Letter does not mention CSN, the issues raised therein are in my view likely to be at least somewhat of interest to active CSN clinics too. I’m planning to contact CSN leadership to ask for a reaction to the letter and clarify whether CSN and Irvine are indeed no longer affiliated as would seem to be the case.

Irvine has only a few more days left of the 15 day response period to address the concerns raised by the FDA.

Stay tuned for more on this breaking news in follow up posts. This is a long Warning Letter with much to think about in it.