After more than six years blogging about stem cells and other innovative biomedical technologies, I thought I'd seen everything out there on the web. However, a new article by Honor Whiteman in Medical News Today really takes the cake, and not in a good way.
The article, entitled "Stem cell therapy: is the US missing a trick?" ends up being a promotional for a stem cell clinic in Mexico that is hawking unproven stem cell "treatments" for a host of conditions including for kids suffering from autism and cerebral palsy. MNT is, in effect, giving free advertising to the World Stem Cells Clinic in Cancun, Mexico, without the appropriate balance and context.
Among the astonishing claims that the article repeats are that 100 percent of autism patients have improved after "treatment" at this clinic. Really? Most of us don t even have a 100 percent success rate drinking a glass of lemonade -- sometimes we spill it.
The price tag for this miracle treatment? Just $17,000.
The clinic, as promoted by MNT, also claims a 90-95 percent success rate for treating chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) with stem cells. To my knowledge, there is no convincing evidence in the published literature that stem cells are safe and effective to treat autism, cerebral palsy or COPD. As a reminder even the most rigorously scientifically proven therapies that are based upon rock solid, data-based rationales do not achieve 90-100 percent success rates. And then there s the reality that most clinical trials of experimental drugs, including biologics like stem cells, fail. In this context, these kinds of claims, as passed along by MNT, are hard for me to believe and this article could put patients, including kids, at risk.
Oddly, this particular clinic apparently will not treat ALS with stem cells because they say, as quoted in the MNT piece, that it doesn't make sense. But treating autism and COPD with an unproven stem cell intervention does make sense? I don't get it. I've only been studying stem cells for a couple of decades so maybe these folks can explain it to me.
On page 2, the MNT article presents a very one-sided discussion of the "big bad" FDA as obstructing the availability of these wonderful stem cell therapies in the U.S. There's no balance here, as only the stem cell clinic leader, Dr. Ernesto GutiÃ©rrez, and some other physician who is not a fan of the FDA, are quoted.
Yet, demonstrating a wonderful sense of community, the clinic is reportedly working with the FDA:
"Still, Dr. GutiÃ©rrez told us that the World Stem Cells Clinic and other organizations across the globe are working with the FDA in order to push forward stem cell therapy approval in the US, but he pointed out that it is likely to be another 5-10 years before Americans can access the treatment on home turf."
I wonder what "working with" means in this context. If World Stem Cells Clinic is, for example, discussing a pre-IND or BLA with the FDA, I d love to hear about it and would consider doing an article on such a development.
Then in the MNT piece comes a discussion of what to look out for in the stem cell arena in the way questionable clinics and the article ends with this quote that seems ironic to me, particularly since the clinic s own website in the bottom right corner has patient testimonial videos.
"Dr. GutiÃ©rrez said that any stem cell clinic that boasts claims based on patient testimonials rather than scientific literature should also be avoided, as should clinics that do not have a physician or a team of doctors willing to talk to patients about their treatment; patient-doctor communication is of key importance."
I would ask, respectfully, where are the data and scientific literature supporting this clinic s own claims about autism and more as passed along without context by MNT?
I hope that MNT does a better job of balance in the future if it dives into the wild and woolly world of stem cell clinics. Even one quote from someone with a different viewpoint could go a long way toward more responsible coverage.
Paul Knoepfler is an associate professor at UC Davis School of Medicine, where he does stem cell and cancer research. He also blogs at the Niche and is the author of two books: Stem Cells: An Insider's Guide and his new work, GMO Sapiens, which covers CRISPR and human genetic modification for a lay audience.
You can follow him on Twitter @pknoepfler.