LA Times Shines Some Light on Stem Cell Clinics including StemGenex

A large and growing number of American clinics are selling stem cells to patients for a variety of ills and one in the San Diego area called StemGenex was the main focus of a recent LA Times piece by columnist Michael Hiltzik. In the piece called “These new stem cell treatments are expensive — and unproven” Hiltzik discussed the growing issues over stem cell clinics in the U.S. and he used StemGenex as a kind of test case or example.StemGenex

He started off with a description of the kind of hopeful feeling that many patients experience upon visiting stem cell clinic websites:

“Visitors to the website of StemGenex, a La Jolla medical group, could be forgiven for thinking that the answer to their prayers is finally at hand.”

However, there is little published data to support the expectation that one’s prayers might be answered at U.S. stem cell clinics today. I talked with Hiltzik about the state of the American stem cell clinic arena and my concerns as he was researching his piece. The marketing of stem cells is too aspirational in my view and patients are sold medical interventions in many cases that may not work and have potential risks. Hiltzik writes (emphasis mine):

“StemGenex’s director of media and community relations, Jamie Schubert, told me that its “principal purpose is helping people with unmet clinical needs achieve optimum health and better quality of life,” and that it has “anecdotal feedback … from our patients that their symptoms have dramatically improved and their quality of life has substantially increased.”

Keep in mind that we are talking about hundreds of clinics in the U.S. injecting living stem cells into patients’ bloodstreams or into specific tissues and most clinics out there do not have FDA approval to do this so anecdotes are not a strong foundation for this kind of practice in my opinion.

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Stem cell treatment cost 2.0: legit therapy

stem cells costWe hear so much about exciting potential stem cell therapies. Some of these are rigorously evaluated ones in the FDA clinical trial pipeline and others are available right now mainly through predatory stem cell clinics. Earlier this year I posted about the cost of the offerings of dubious stem cell clinics.

In this post, I address the cost of a future, legitimate, FDA-approved stem cell therapy. How high will that be?

This is a critical question because if many patients cannot afford a stem cell therapy then the impact of that therapy is reduced. Cost is inversely related to access. On the other hand, stem cell biotechs must make some profit or they will go out of business. Investors, who are often enthusiastic boosters of the stem cell field, will lose large sums of money and confidence in the field too in that scenario if stem cell treatments are priced “too low”. What is the “right” price?

There is likely to be increasing pressure on biologics drug prices as well from the federal government. Witness Hillary Clinton’s recent tweet on this topic below that sent people into a tizzy.

At the state level, such as here in California, the question of stem cell treatment cost is also becoming more pressing including for our state stem cell agency, CIRM. As CIRM-funded clinical trials advance, which is a wonderful thing, at the same time we get closer to where someone will have to decide on stem cell price tags.

We can look at what other cellular drugs have cost as guidance for the price tag range for stem cell treatments. For instance, Prochymal (its old name under Osiris) that is now rebranded as TEMCELL from Mesoblast/JCR likely will cost about $200K for a full treatment for GVHD (HT to Alexey). Provenge, the cellular prostate cancer drug from the controversial biotech Dendreon had (has?) a price tag of $93K. The most expensive drug in history, the gene therapy med Glybera will cost around $1.5 million per patient.

Realistically, a typical legit stem cell therapy could easily be $100K per patient. A personalized cellular medicine such as an autologous stem cell-based therapy could easily run into the hundreds of thousands per patient. Some therapies could go as high as $500,000 (see this helpful piece by David Jensen) or even into the millions.

Irv Arons

Irv Arons (@iarons) has come up with a great table of cost estimates focused in the area of vision therapy (free registration required). Thanks to Irv for permission to use it here (above).

How will patients afford such expensive therapies?

Will such therapies be covered by governmental agencies or insurance companies? They should.

We should also be keeping in mind the current costs of treating today’s patients with major and sometimes chronic diseases. These costs run into the hundreds of billions or above a trillion dollars each year in the US alone. That’s important context and rightly indicates that the costs of stem cell therapies to society may be appropriate even if at an individual level they seem high.

How does this compare to stem cell treatments at predatory clinics?

Such “treatments” range from $5,000-$20,000 each and most patients with whom I have talked either received or were pitched at least two such treatments, amplifying the total cost. The cost to the clinic of the treatment itself can be as low as $500-$1,000. Some clinics claim to have treated thousands of patients suggesting they are making millions in profits.

Why are stem cell clinic offerings typically relatively cheaper than legit treatments? Frankly, it is because they don’t follow the rules or do the necessary studies to prove safety and efficacy. Ten thousand dollars is still a lot to pay for something that doesn’t work and could even be harmful.

Even so some consumers may perceive dubious stem cell treatments as the way to go because of the lower cost, particularly if the legitimate stem cell field fails to do a good job at educational outreach and the FDA continues to effectively do nothing about the stem cell clinic problem.

The bottom line remains a question. Where’s the stem cell price sweet spot where we can help the most patients, but also generate a needed profit for the biotechs?

We need to find an answer to this question soon.