A Very Uncharitable Pew Stem Cell Policy Report

By A. Rahman Ford, PNN Columnist

The Pew Charitable Trust – an institution whose stated mission is to “encourage democratic participation” in accordance with its founders’ “emphasis on innovation” – has released a 52-page report on the FDA’s framework for regulating stem cells and regenerative medicine.

Far from democratic, the report is really a thinly-veiled hit piece on stem cell therapy – one of the few fields of medicine where innovation is actually occurring.

“In many cases, there is little reliable evidence to support claims that these so-called stem cell treatments will have any effect—or indeed that they contain stem cells at all, despite the claims made about them,” the Pew report found. “Beyond the potential physical, psychological, and financial harm to patients, the widespread availability of these unproven treatments could negatively affect the entire field of regenerative medicine.”

On its surface, the report’s professed aims of consumer safety and regulatory clarity are laudable and necessary. However, the report is clearly biased against stem cell clinics and fails to seriously consider the patient perspective in policymaking. And Pew’s curious selection of regenerative medicine “stakeholders” not only diminishes the report’s legitimacy, but reveals troubling undercurrents of industry and agency influence.

Ambiguity and Controversy in Regulatory Policy

The Pew report begins innocuously enough, by laying out the general landscape of regenerative medicine, federal regulation and FDA guidance. The report correctly notes the “complex and rapidly evolving” nature of regenerative medicine, as well as the legal ambiguity that pervades the FDA’s jurisdiction over enforcement.

The report accurately describes the controversy surrounding the FDA’s interpretation of “minimal manipulation” and “homologous use” standards, which determine whether a stem cell product is exempt from the agency’s pre-market approval requirements. It also notes that the FDA’s examples of what uses do or do not meet those standards – as stated in its guidance – are “inconsistent or arbitrary.”

The report’s recommendations are entirely based on stakeholder interviews. All 11 stakeholders supported the FDA’s crackdown on clinics, even though there are plenty of critics who think it is stifling innovation and patient access to stem cell therapy.

Rather than reduce regulation, Pew suggests that additional stakeholders like the Federal Trade Commission, National Institutes of Health and state governments should assist the FDA in its crackdown, adding even more layers of regulatory control.

The report also endorses the online censorship campaign against clinics and goes out of its way to essentially classify Texas and Alabama as “rogue states” for trying to actually expand the availability of stem cell therapy.

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Rather than support a balanced and judicious approach that would both promote safety and innovations such as autologous stem cells, the report calls for “tighter control of the industry” to “lend legitimacy to the field and provide regulatory certainty, both of which are essential for developers seeking investment, as well as for payers that will eventually make insurance coverage decisions for these new treatments.”

To be sure, the resolution of regulatory ambiguity is a good thing for all parties. But the ambiguity should not be resolved in a manner that disadvantages the sick and disabled, as well as the small clinics that lack economic leverage to influence agency rule-making. Unfortunately, the Pew report privileges the wealth and influence of the healthcare industry in determining what policies are best. Patients and their interests are unceremoniously relegated to the back of the policy-making bus.

A Suspicious Selection of Stakeholders

As previously stated, the Pew report’s recommendations were derived from stakeholder interviews. Quite laughably, the report maintains that a “broad range of perspectives” were included. Of course, no practicing clinicians were included. Nor were any patient advocates interviewed. However, industry and academia were represented. In fact, one stakeholder was the former Chief Biotechnology Officer and Head of Scientific Strategy and Policy for Johnson & Johnson. Yes, that Johnson & Johnson.

The same Johnson & Johnson that, according to the New York Times, faces more than 100,000 lawsuits over its products. The same Johnson & Johnson that currently faces thousands of lawsuits over claims its baby powder has caused mesothelioma and ovarian cancer. The same Johnson & Johnson that recently agreed to pay a $117 million settlement for deceptive marketing of pelvic mesh implants and $8 billion for playing down the risks of the antipsychotic drug Risperdal. And yes, the same Johnson & Johnson that was found liable in the Oklahoma opioid trial.

So when the Pew report argues that stem cell clinics should be censored and persecuted for offering “dangerous” products and engaging in “deceptive” marketing practices, it is the absolute height of hypocrisy.

To make matters worse, that same former J&J “stakeholder” – who now sits on the board of biotech firm MacroGenics – worked for the FDA for 20 years reviewing and approving biologic products. This is the epitome of policymaking incest.

To appreciate the Pew report’s true motives, all one need do is peruse its references. The report’s end-notes are littered with citations to the work of the most public and commonly interviewed stem cell critics, all of whom are on the record as card-carrying regulationists.

Pew’s cherry-picking of sources reveals its true agenda. It is a meticulously-manicured industry-slanted propaganda piece masquerading as rational, objective stem cell policy.

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A. Rahman Ford, PhD, is a lawyer and research professional. He is a graduate of Rutgers University and the Howard University School of Law, where he served as Editor-in-Chief of the Howard Law Journal.

Rahman lives with chronic inflammation in his digestive tract and is unable to eat solid food. He has received stem cell treatment in China. 

The information in this column is for informational purposes only and represent the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.