Elite Hospitals Offering Unproven Stem Cell Treatments

By Liz Szabo, Kaiser Health News

The online video seems to promise everything an arthritis patient could want.

The six-minute segment mimics a morning talk show, using a polished TV host to interview guests around a coffee table. Dr. Adam Pourcho extols the benefits of stem cells and “regenerative medicine” for healing joints without surgery. Pourcho, a sports medicine specialist, says he has used platelet injections to treat his own knee pain, as well as a tendon injury in his elbow. Extending his arm, he says, “It’s completely healed.”

Brendan Hyland, a gym teacher and track coach, describes withstanding intense heel pain for 18 months before seeing Pourcho. Four months after the injections, he says, he was pain-free and has since gone on a 40-mile hike.

“I don’t have any pain that stops me from doing anything I want,” Hyland says.

The video’s cheerleading tone mimics the infomercials used to promote stem cell clinics, several of which have recently gotten into hot water with federal regulators, said Dr. Paul Knoepfler, a professor of cell biology and human anatomy at the University of California-Davis School of Medicine.

But the marketing video wasn’t filmed by a little-known operator. It was sponsored by Swedish Medical Center, the largest nonprofit health provider in the Seattle area.

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Swedish is one of a growing number of respected hospitals and health systems—including the Mayo Clinic, the Cleveland Clinic and the University of Miami—that have entered the lucrative business of stem cells and related therapies. Typical treatments involve injecting patients’ joints with their own fat or bone marrow cells, or with extracts of platelets, the cell fragments known for their role in clotting blood. Many patients seek out regenerative medicine to stave off surgery, even though the evidence supporting these experimental therapies is thin at best, Knoepfler said.

Hospitals say they’re providing options to patients who have exhausted standard treatments. But critics suggest the hospitals are exploiting desperate patients and profiting from trendy but unproven treatments.

The Food and Drug Administration is attempting to shut down clinics that hawk unapproved stem cell therapies, which have been linked to several cases of blindness and at least 12 serious infections. Although doctors usually need preapproval to treat patients with human cells, the FDA has carved out a handful of exceptions, as long as the cells meet certain criteria, said Barbara Binzak Blumenfeld, an attorney who specializes in food and drug law at Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney in Washington.

Hospitals like Mayo are careful to follow these criteria, to avoid running afoul of the FDA, said Dr. Shane Shapiro, program director for the Regenerative Medicine Therapeutics Suites at Mayo Clinic's campus in Florida.

‘Expensive Placebos’

While hospital-based stem cell treatments may be legal, there’s no strong evidence they work, said Leigh Turner, an associate professor at the University of Minnesota’s Center for Bioethics who has published a series of articles describing the size and dynamics of the stem cell market.

“FDA approval isn’t needed and physicians can claim they aren’t violating federal regulations,” Turner said. “But just because something is legal doesn’t make it ethical.”

For doctors and hospitals, stem cells are easy money, Turner said. Patients typically pay more than $700 a treatment for platelets and up to $5,000 for fat and bone marrow injections. As a bonus, doctors don’t have to wrangle with insurance companies, which view the procedures as experimental and largely don’t cover them.

It’s lucrative. It’s easy to do. All these reputable institutions, they don’t want to miss out on the business. It preys on people’s desperation.
— Dr. James Rickert

“It’s an out-of-pocket, cash-on-the-barrel economy,” Turner said. Across the country, “clinicians at elite medical facilities are lining their pockets by providing expensive placebos.”

Some patient advocates worry that hospitals are more interested in capturing a slice of the stem-cell market than in proving their treatments actually work.

“It’s lucrative. It’s easy to do. All these reputable institutions, they don’t want to miss out on the business,” said Dr. James Rickert, president of the Society for Patient Centered Orthopedics, which advocates for high-quality care. “It preys on people’s desperation.”

In a joint statement, Pourcho and Swedish defended the online video.

“The terminology was kept simple and with analogies that the lay person would understand,” according to the statement. “As with any treatment that we provide, we encourage patients to research and consider all potential treatment options before deciding on what is best for them.”

But Knoepfler said the guests on the video make several “unbelievable” claims.

At one point, Dr. Pourcho says that platelets release growth factors that tell the brain which types of stem cells to send to the site of an injury. According to Pourcho, these instructions make sure that tissues are repaired with the appropriate type of cell, and “so you don’t get, say, eyeball in your hand.”

Knoepfler, who has studied stem cell biology for two decades, said he has never heard of “any possibility of growing eyeball or other random tissues in your hand.” Knoepfler, who wrote about the video in February on his blog, The Niche, said, “There’s no way that the adult brain could send that kind of stem cells anywhere in the body.”

The marketing video debuted in July on KING-TV, a Seattle station, as part of a local lifestyles show called “New Day Northwest.”

Although much of the show is produced by the KING 5 news team, some segments—like Pourcho’s interview—are sponsored by local advertisers, said Jim Rose, president and general manager of KING 5 Media Group.

After being contacted by KHN, Rose asked Swedish to remove the video from YouTube because it wasn’t labeled as sponsored content. Omitting that label could allow the video to be confused with news programming. The video now appears only on the KING-TV website, where Swedish is labeled as the sponsor.

“The goal is to clearly inform viewers of paid content so they can distinguish editorial and news content from paid material,” Rose said. “We value the public’s trust.”

Increasing Scrutiny

Federal authorities have recently begun cracking down on doctors who make unproven claims or sell unapproved stem cell products.

In October, the Federal Trade Commission fined stem cell clinics millions of dollars for deceptive advertising, noting that the companies claimed to be able to treat or cure autism, Parkinson’s disease and other serious diseases.

In a recent interview Scott Gottlieb, the FDA commissioner, said the agency will continue to go after what he called “bad actors.”

With more than 700 stem cell clinics in operation, the FDA is first targeting those posing the biggest threat, such as doctors who inject stem cells directly into the eye or brain.

“There are clearly bad actors who are well over the line and who are creating significant risks for patients,” Gottlieb said.

Products are being promoted that aren’t providing any proven benefits and where patients are paying out-of-pocket.
— Scott Gottlieb, FDA Commissioner

Gottlieb, set to leave office April 5, said he’s also concerned about the financial exploitation of patients in pain.

“There’s economic harm here, where products are being promoted that aren’t providing any proven benefits and where patients are paying out-of-pocket,” Gottlieb said.

Dr. Peter Marks, director of the FDA’s Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research, said there is a broad “spectrum” of stem cell providers, ranging from university scientists leading rigorous clinical trials to doctors who promise stem cells are “for just about anything.” Hospitals operate somewhere in the middle, Marks said.

“The good news is that they’re somewhat closer to the most rigorous academics,” he said.

The Mayo Clinic’s regenerative medicine program, for example, focuses conditions such as arthritis, where injections pose few serious risks, even if that’s not yet the standard of care, Shapiro said.

Rickert said it’s easy to see why hospitals are eager to get in the game.

The market for arthritis treatment is huge and growing. At least 30 million Americans have the most common form of arthritis, with diagnoses expected to soar as the population ages. Platelet-rich plasma (PRP) injections for arthritis generated more than $93 million in revenue in 2015, according to an article last year in The Journal of Knee Surgery.

“We have patients in our offices demanding these treatments,” Shapiro said. “If they don’t get them from us, they will get them somewhere else.”

Doctors at the Mayo Clinic try to provide stem cell treatments and similar therapies responsibly, Shapiro said. In a paper published this year, Shapiro described the hospital’s consultation service, in which doctors explain patients’ options and clear up misconceptions about what stem cells and other injections can do. Doctors can refer patients to treatment or clinical trials.

“Most of the patients do not get a regenerative [stem cell] procedure,” Shapiro said. “They don’t get it because after we have a frank conversation, they decide, ‘Maybe it’s not for me.’”

Lots of Hype, Little Proof

Although some hospitals boast of high success rates for their stem cell procedures, published research doesn’t back up those claims, Rickert said.

The Mayo Clinic website says that 40 to 70 percent of patients “find some level of pain relief.” Atlanta-based Emory Healthcare claims that 75 to 80 percent of patients “have had significant pain relief and improved function.” In the Swedish video, Pourcho claims “we can treat really any tendon or any joint” with PRP.

The strongest evidence for PRP is in pain relief for arthritic knees and tennis elbow, where it appears to be safe and perhaps helpful, said Dr. Nicolas Piuzzi, an orthopedic surgeon at the Cleveland Clinic.

But PRP hasn’t been proven to help every part of the body, he said.

PRP has been linked to serious complications when injected to treat patellar tendinitis, an injury to the tendon connecting the kneecap to the shinbone. In a 2013 paper, researchers described the cases of three patients whose pain got dramatically worse after PRP injections. One patient lost bone and underwent surgery to repair the damage.

“People will say, ‘If you inject PRP, you will return to sports faster,’” said Dr. Freddie Fu, chairman of orthopedic surgery at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. “But that hasn’t been proven.”

A 2017 study of PRP found it relieved knee pain slightly better than injections of hyaluronic acid. But that’s nothing to brag about, Rickert said, given that hyaluronic acid therapy doesn’t work, either. While some PRP studies have shown more positive results, Rickert notes that most were so small or poorly designed that their results aren’t reliable.

In its 2013 guidelines for knee arthritis, the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons said it is “unable to recommend for or against” PRP.

“PRP is sort of a ‘buyer beware’ situation,” said Dr. William Li, president and CEO of the Angiogenesis Foundation, whose research focuses on blood vessel formation. “It’s the poor man’s approach to biotechnology.”

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Tests of other stem cell injections also have failed to live up to expectations.

Shapiro published a rigorously designed study last year in Cartilage, a medical journal, that found bone marrow injections were no better at relieving knee pain than saltwater injections. Rickert noted that patients who are in pain often get relief from placebos. The more invasive the procedure, the stronger the placebo effect, he said, perhaps because patients become invested in the idea that an intervention will really help. Even saltwater injections help 70 percent of patients, Fu said.

A 2016 review in the Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery concluded that “the value and effective use of cell therapy in orthopaedics remain unclear.” The following year, a review in the British Journal of Sports Medicine concluded, “We do not recommend stem cell therapy” for knee arthritis.

Shapiro said hospitals and health plans are right to be cautious.

“The insurance companies don’t pay for fat grafting or bone-marrow aspiration, and rightly so,” Shapiro said. “That’s because we don’t have enough evidence.”

Rickert, an orthopedist in Bedford, Indiana, said fat, bone marrow and platelet injections should be offered only through clinical trials, which carefully evaluate experimental treatments. Patients shouldn’t be charged for these services until they’ve been tested and shown to work.

Orthopedists—surgeons who specialize in bones and muscles—have a history of performing unproven procedures, including spinal fusion, surgery for rotator cuff disease and arthroscopy for worn-out knees, Turner said. Recently, studies have shown them to be no more effective than placebos.

Misleading Marketing

Some argue that joint injections shouldn’t be marketed as stem cell treatments at all.

Piuzzi said he prefers to call the injections “orthobiologics,”noting that platelets are not even cells, let alone stem cells. The number of stem cells in fat and bone marrow injections is extremely small, he said.

Patients are attracted to regenerative medicine because they assume it will regrow their lost cartilage, Piuzzi said. There’s no solid evidence that the commercial injections used today spur tissue growth, Piuzzi said. Although doctors hope that platelets will release anti-inflammatory substances, which could theoretically help calm an inflamed joint, they don’t know why some patients who receive platelet injections feel better, but others don’t.

So, it comes as no surprise that many patients have trouble sorting through the hype.

Florida resident Kathy Walsh, 61, said she wasted nearly $10,000 on stem cell and platelet injections at a Miami clinic, hoping to avoid knee replacement surgery.

When Walsh heard about a doctor in Miami claiming to regenerate knee cartilage with stem cells, “it seemed like an answer to a prayer,” said Walsh, of Stuart, Florida. “You’re so much in pain and so frustrated that you cling to every bit of hope you can get, even if it does cost you a lot of money.”

The injections eased her pain for only a few months. Eventually, she had both knees replaced. She has been nearly pain-free ever since. “My only regret,” she said, “is that I wasted so much time and money.”

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a nonprofit news service covering health issues. It is an editorially independent program of the Kaiser Family Foundation that is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

12 Patients Sickened by Contaminated Stem Cells

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

At least a dozen patients undergoing stem cell therapy developed bacterial infections after being injected with unapproved stem cell products, according to the Food and Drug Administration. Most of the patients were being treated for chronic back and joint pain.

All 12 patients were hospitalized, but there were no deaths. Seven of the infections were in Texas, four in Florida and one was in Arizona.  CDC investigators found E. coli bacteria in unopened vials at two of the stem cell clinics where the patients were treated.   

All of the patients received stem cells derived from umbilical cords that were initially processed by Genetech, a San Diego stem cell manufacturer.  The stem cells were recalled in October and the FDA sent a warning letter to Genetech last month saying its donor selection, manufacturing and safety standards were deficient.

“In this case, the company’s failure to put in place appropriate safeguards may have led to serious blood infections in patients,” FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, MD, said in a statement.


This week the FDA also sent letters to 20 other stem cell providers warning them that the agency would step up its enforcement of guidelines for cell-based regenerative medicine. The FDA has long taken a dim view of newer stem cell therapies that have not undergone clinical testing, but said it would use “enforcement discretion” as long as a new treatment does not pose a significant safety risk.

“The letters we’re issuing today to manufacturers, health care providers and clinics around the country are a reminder that there’s a clear line between appropriate development of these products and practices that sidestep important regulatory controls needed to protect patients. Time is running out for firms to come into compliance during our period of enforcement discretion,” Gottlieb said.  

Gottlieb has previously warned of “unscrupulous actors” in the stem cell industry that deceive patients with “dangerously dubious products.” Critics have complained the agency's "go slow" approach to regnerative medicine has delayed the development of promising new treatments for autoimmune diseases, cancer, diabetes, neuropathy, back pain and other illnesses.  

Taking Stem Cells to the Bank

By A. Rahman Ford, Columnist

There’s a lot of hope and hype surrounding stem cells – the latest being the idea of “banking” them -- harvesting and storing your own stem cells for future use.

A biotech start-up called Forever Labs maintains that young adults have healthier cells that can be used when they are older to fight arthritis and other age-related diseases – or perhaps even help them live longer with a booster shot of younger cells. 

“Research suggests the decline in the number and viability of bone marrow stem cells plays a role in the physical decline associated with aging. In fact, simply injecting genetically-matched young stem cells into aged mice significantly increases their lifespan,” the company claims on its website. “To have access to young, genetically-matched stem cells in the future, store yours today.

Collection of bone and bone marrow stem cells is done by a Forever Labs physician in a 15-minute out-patient procedure that costs about $2,000.  Your cells are then cryogenically frozen and stored for $250 a year.  

Another company, called LifeVault, offers a similar service at a lower price: $995 to have a blood sample drawn and shipped to a lab in New Jersey, where the blood will be processed into stem cells and stored for $95 a year. 

“We believe, and medicine is starting to believe, that this is really going to be a part of your health hygiene,” LifeVault CEO Trevor Perry told STAT News. He called the company’s test kit a form of “biological insurance.”


“You insure a lot of things in your life, but have you taken out a policy on yourself?” Perry asked.

LifeVault and Forever Labs are indicative of a larger trend in the fast-growing stem cell industry. As hundreds of stem cell clinics have opened around the country – offering treatment for everything from back pain to neuropathy – stem cell banking has moved beyond its original use for research toward commercialization for everyday people.  

The global stem cell banking market is projected to reach $9.3 billion by 2023, according to the research firm MarketsandMarkets, with the personalized banking segment projected to account for most of that growth.

In addition to blood and bone marrow, stem cells from a variety of other sources can be banked, including dental tissue, umbilical cord blood, placental tissue, adipose fat tissue and fetal tissue.

Umbilical cord blood and adipose tissue are currently the most commonly banked sources of stem cells.  This is largely because of practical concerns such as low cost, ease of access to the tissue, and the ability to harvest large amounts of stem cells.  

Cord blood contains primarily hematopoietic stem cells, along with a mixture of other cell types that may be suitable for treating certain rare genetic diseases.  Adipose tissue contains an abundance of mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs), a type of stem cell with immune and regenerative capabilities.  Both types have been used to treat orthopedic, neurological and cardiovascular conditions.

Several factors impact the use of cells stored in stem cell banks.  First, the source of the stem cells must be taken into consideration.  Autologous stem cells --- which come from the patient being treated -- are easier from a medical and regulatory point of view because the risk of immune system rejection is lower, as is the risk of running afoul of FDA regulations. 

Methods of collection and processing are also critical.  In the case of cord blood, most companies use small bags to collect the blood at the time of birth. Cord tissue can also be collected, stored and used later for regenerative purposes.  

Adipose tissues are obtained through liposuction procedures or by syringe under local anesthetic.  The adipose fat must be processed and preserved within 36 hours of harvesting.  The material is washed with saline and ultimately stored in a liquid nitrogen freezer.  

While still relatively new, stem cell banking is poised for healthy growth.  That growth is buttressed by the unfortunate rise in chronic diseases among both children and adults.  Growth and competition should also result in lower costs, a factor which surely deters many interested clients from taking out that “biological insurance” policy on themselves. 

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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. He earned his PhD at the University of Pennsylvania.

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 should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It 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.

Stem Cell Therapy Becoming More Affordable

By Dr. Kristin Comella, Guest Columnist

Demand for stem cell therapy in the U.S. is anticipated to be at an all-time high this year as more patients seek to use their own cells to heal from various injuries and diseases. Among them are many chronic pain patients seeking alternatives to opioid medication and surgery for treating pain caused by systemic diseases, orthopedic conditions, neurological problems and aging.

At one time many patients traveled outside the country and were paying $20,000 to $50,000 for treatment at stem cell clinics in Europe and Asia. But over the past five years, the cost of stem cell therapy has come down dramatically.

Stem cell providers have been able to simplify the process into an outpatient protocol at hundreds of clinics throughout the U.S. As a result, costs are lower -- typically from $5,000 to $12,000 -- depending on the specific condition, practitioner, location and treatments required.

As with any specialized procedure, the cost will reflect the depth of the treatment and the time spent working with the patient. Unfortunately, stem cell treatments are not usually covered by insurance.


When compared to traditional surgery, where in most cases there is a similar price point and significant down-time, out-patient stem cell therapy is much less invasive. Patients treated with stem cells can return to their regular routines soon after the simple procedure, rather than requiring weeks of physical therapy or needing crutches and wheelchairs to get around.

Recent studies show that stem cells may be used in a variety of indications where opioids are frequently prescribed, such as back pain.  I recently co-authored a small study appearing in the Journal of Translational Medicine, in which 15 patients with degenerative disc disease were treated with stem cells derived from their own fat tissue. All 15 patients reported a statistically significant reduced pain level after stem cell therapy.

Adult stem cells may have the ability to improve and possibly even reverse the effects of many types of chronic pain caused by tissue or neurological damage. Adult stem cells are found in every part of the body, and can be harvested from a patient’s own tissue, such as adipose (fat) tissue, muscle, teeth, skin or bone marrow. Fat tissue is one of the most plentiful sources of stem cells in the body. In fact, approximately 500 times more stem cells can be obtained from fat than bone marrow.

Typically, during a simple outpatient procedure, stem cells can be isolated from fat tissue in 30 to 90 minutes, under local anesthesia using a mini-lipoaspirate technique. They can then be infused or re-injected after the mini-liposuction.

A recent study published in the Journal of Clinical Medicine Research underscores the safety of using a person’s own stem cells – known as autologous stem cells -- in treating degenerative diseases and injuries. The study was the largest safety trial to date that successfully used stem cells from fat in procedures completed on 676 patients. It is also the first trial to address cells from fat in multiple diseases and with different delivery routes.

To date, more than 10,000 patients have been successfully treated using the stem cell protocols being utilized at American Stem Cell.  There has been a significant increase in interest from patients in using stem cells for general health, anti-aging, and reducing inflammation. More and more patients are also seeking to preserve and bank their cells for “just in case” scenarios.

The positive results we’ve been getting are very encouraging and offer hope for many patients battling chronic pain. 

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Kristin Comella, PhD, is Chief Science Officer for American Stem Cell Centers of Excellence. She specializes in regenerative medicine with a focus on adipose derived stem cells.

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.

FDA Moves Forward on Stem Cells

By A. Rahman Ford, Columnist

The Food and Drug Administration is finally getting the message.

In a special report published in The New England Journal of Medicine, the FDA makes a clear and positive shift in its stem cell policy – conceding that the old paradigm of drug approval just doesn’t work for stem cells.

The report, entitled “Balancing Safety and Innovation for Cell-Based Regenerative Medicine” is authored by FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, MD, and Peter Marks, MD, Director of the FDA’s Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research. 

Although short on specifics, Gottlieb and Marks declare their openness to creating alternative paths toward FDA approval of stem cell products – a policy change that could help stem cell therapies get to market faster and help patients sooner. This is a welcome move by the FDA. 

The tone used by the authors signals that the FDA is listening to the voice of the people and stem cell developers. Gottlieb and Marks wrote the FDA must take “an original policy approach to the regulation of a highly innovative field, one in which [the FDA’s] traditional approach to regulation may not be as efficient or effective as in more mature fields.” 

They maintain further that by working “within the existing regulatory framework” and by adopting “new principles,” the FDA’s premarket evaluation of stem-cell therapies will become more efficient. 


It seems the agency could no longer ignore the fact that patients – such as those who suffer from chronic pain – cannot wait for the rusty gears of the antiquated clinical trial process to churn out the treatments they need to save their lives.

FDA Breaks with Past

The tone set by Marks and Gottlieb differs significantly from that of Gottlieb’s predecessor, Robert Caliiff, MD, who co-authored a NEJM article last year entitled “Clarifying Stem Cell Therapy’s Benefits and Risks.”  As I’ve previously discussed, the arguments made by Califf were seriously problematic, specifically with regard to autologous therapies, which use stem cells made from a patient’s own blood or body tissue  

Although Califf and his co-authors acknowledged the “unique challenges of stem cell clinical research,” their overall posture was decisively rigid in regard to new approaches to FDA approval.  As an indication of just how low of a priority outreach was to them, they made no mention of working with stem cell investigators and sponsors until the final sentence of the article.  For the previous regime, outreach was an afterthought.

Marks and Gottlieb seem to be taking a more conciliatory approach by extending a regulatory olive branch to stem cell physicians and small clinics.  Unlike previous FDA statements, they spent less time on the spurious issue of safety and instead pivot toward the effectiveness of treatment and moving forward with commercialization.  In doing so, the they acknowledge that the novelty of stem cell technologies require a more flexible path toward approval.

To accommodate this move and to facilitate the expedited availability of stem cells to patients, the FDA will use the expanded authorities granted it by the 21st Century Cures Act.  The Cures Act allows the FDA to use non-traditional types of data – such as clinical data – to receive FDA approval.  Notably, the FDA will be incorporating some “new concepts for how small investigators and firms can seek and meet the approval standard for products through efficient expedited pathways.”  This is a step in the right direction.

How exactly will this work in practice?  No one really knows.  Marks and Gottlieb only provide one theoretical example: the FDA will provide “tools” to allow small firms to work collaboratively to obtain a biologics license for physicians, researchers and clinics.

Any outreach by the FDA should be welcomed and any attempt to expedite the availability of stem cell therapies to patients who need them should be encouraged.  However, given the dearth of detail offered by Gottlieb and Marks, precisely how these alternatives will work in practice remains nebulous.  Thus, the overtures made by the FDA are – at this point -- best met with skepticism and a cautious optimism

If the FDA is truly open to novel approaches to stem cell regulation, it should devise separate rules for autologous therapies – which former Commissioner Califf acknowledged “raise fewer safety concerns than allogenic cells.”  Regulation of autologous therapies by the FDA should be minimal, with the majority of oversight left to state governments and their agencies.

These new policy changes by the FDA are forward-thinking and should proceed further.  However, as promising as those options appear, they should in no way be construed as delegitimizing or nullifying legislative advances made in Texas or those that will be made when Congress enacts “Right to Try” legislation. 

All of these options can function cooperatively to ensure that the patients – often the most overlooked quantity in the medical policy equation – can receive the life-saving and curative treatments they need as soon as possible.

The FDA may offer many paths, but it need not be the only path.

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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. He earned his PhD at the University of Pennsylvania.

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 should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It 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.

Should the ‘War on Stem Cells’ Be Fought in Court?

By A. Rahman Ford, Columnist

A recent article published in the journal Regenerative Medicine suggests that civil lawsuits should be used to protect patients and draw attention to unscrupulous stem cell clinics. 

The authors, Claire Horner, Evelyn Tennenbaum, Zubin Master and Douglas Sipp, contend that civil litigation would "convincingly show patients and society that there are real and significant harms from unproven SCIs (stem cell interventions), and this strategy may complement the arsenal of efforts focused on reining in this industry.” 

Horner, Tennenbaum and Master are academics in medical ethics at Baylor College of Medicine, Albany Law School and the Mayo Clinic, respectively; while Sipp is affiliated with RIKEN, a Japanese research institute that is developing stem cell technology.

Their use of the word “arsenal” sounds like a declaration of war, an unfortunate, fratricidal war against their fellow Americans who need stem cells to treat their pain and disability.  After reading their article, it’s clear that fearmongering is their best weapon.

The authors really don’t like clinics that use a patient’s own stem cells to heal themselves.  They lament that many industrialized countries are moving toward more openness in accelerated approval of stem cells and other regenerative therapies.  And they contend that inadequate enforcement and penalties at the U.S. federal level justify the need for lawsuits.

“In the absence of government oversight of private sector firms, patients and consumers may need to look elsewhere to protect their interests. Civil litigation provides a means for patients who feel they have been harmed by undergoing a SCI to seek redress and compensation from providers and may also motivate government and industry to address the issue on a larger scale,” they wrote.

The most stupefying part is that the authors go so far as to compare the issue to tobacco companies, gun violence and child molestation! 


The authors admit at the outset that the main goal of their campaign is to propagandize the public and policy-makers.  They state plainly that “stem cell lawsuits may help raise public awareness and influence public policy” and would help draw “attention to negative outcomes and engender moral outrage on the behalf of vulnerable and sympathetic plaintiffs.” 

This tactic would shift attention away from pesky patients’ rights advocates who support broader availability of the potentially life-saving treatments offered by stem cells.  They see this strategy as viable because it worked for consumers injured by the tobacco industry, victims of gun violence, and sexual abuse victims molested by Catholic priests.  The fact that the authors would put stem cell clinics – and by extension stem cell patients – in the same category as Philip Morris, AR-15 gun manufacturers and pedophile Catholic priests is simply ludicrous.

For the authors, civil litigation is essentially a propaganda tool in their misguided war against a non-existent enemy. They advocate using civil litigation to “attract public attention” and “shape the media narrative.” Information operations such as these are an age-old concept in international relations and warfare, that includes the collection of tactical information about an adversary as well as the dissemination of propaganda in the pursuit of a competitive advantage over an opponent. 

And how do the authors intend to collect their tactical information?  They will use the civil litigation discovery process to uncover “previously undisclosed information about a provider’s practices” that could potentially trigger FDA investigations. 

Overall, the tone of the authors’ proposal is that of combativeness and belligerence, not negotiation and reconciliation.  As with all misguided wars, it is civilians – those who the war is allegedly waged to protect – are the ones who suffer the most.

Little Evidence to Support ‘War on Stem Cells’

Even worse, they don’t show their “war on stem cells” is supported by any real-world evidence.  Their methodology is insufficiently rigorous; it lacks integrity to the point of being flimsy, porous and leaky.  The data which serve as the cornerstone of the authors’ argument are 9 court cases in which plaintiffs allege that the stem cell therapy they received was either ineffective or injurious.  

This sample is far too small to seriously support any meaningful conclusions, much less the authors’ conclusion that the number of legal claims is growing.  The 9 cases cited were filed between 2012 and 2017 for a wide variety of medical conditions and for a wide variety of causes of action.

Not only are we not told how many stem cell procedures were actually performed in American clinics over the same time span, but in none of the 9 cases cited was there a disposition in favor of the plaintiffs!  In fact, one was voluntarily dismissed by the plaintiffs and another was dismissed on appeal.  Of the remaining seven, 4 were settled and 4 have yet to be decided. 

So none of the claims of negligence, misrepresentation, fraud, lack of informed consent, or unfair trade practices were ever proven.  The authors acknowledge that this is a problem, and in desperation turn to a Japanese case to support their claims.  The problem is the authors openly admit that “the U.S. administrative and legal systems differ greatly from Japan’s.”  It’s never a good idea to undermine your own argument.

If the authors are truly motivated by the safety and welfare of stem cell patients, then perhaps their efforts would be better spent advocating for the increased democratization and liberalization of stem cell policy. 

This can be accomplished by supporting policies geared toward the availability and affordability of stem cell therapies, such as the patient-centered ethos of “Right to Try” legislation, the regenerative medicine provisions of the 21st Century Cures Act, and the constitutionally-protected privacy right in a patient’s use of their own stem cells. 

We need less antagonism and asymmetry in stem cell policy-making, and more alliance-building and acceptance of a new paradigm of progress. The solution is not more litigation against people, but more listening to the people.

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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. He earned his PhD at the University of Pennsylvania.

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 should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It 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.

How Trump and Congress Can Champion Stem Cells

By A. Rahman Ford, Columnist

For the second straight year, President Trump has endorsed making life-saving treatments like stem cell therapies more available to more Americans.

In his 2017 Joint Address to Congress, Trump highlighted the case of Megan Crowley, a young woman whose father had to launch his own drug company to help treat her Pompe Disease.  Also in attendance that evening was Sarah hughes, who was forced to travel to Mexico to use her own stem cells to treat her systemic idiopathic juvenile arthritis.

In reference to both cases, the president lamented the pain and death caused by the “slow and burdensome approval process at the Food and Drug Administration” that “keeps too many advances … from reaching those in need.”  He argued that regulatory restraints at the FDA should be “slashed” so that more Americans could benefit from life-saving therapies.

President Trump is keeping up the pressure.  During this week's State of the Union address, he continued his theme of a patient-centered, less restrictive approach to medical treatment. 


He did so by voicing his clear support for “Right to Try” legislation, which would increase the medical options of the critically ill by helping them avoid the unduly burdensome and bureaucratic spider’s web of the FDA. 

In a seeming reference to Sarah Hughes and other stem cell medical tourists, Trump stated unequivocally that “patients with terminally conditions … should have access to experimental treatments immediately” and they “should not have to go from country to country to seek a cure.”  He then urged Congress to pass the Right to Try Act, so that Americans can get help “right here at home.”

How Right to Try Works

The language of the Right to Try legislation is simple, straightforward and offers protections for patients and manufacturers.  Under the Senate version, an “eligible patient” who has been diagnosed with a terminal illness may be prescribed an experimental drug or biological product to treat their illness, so long as the patient has a qualified physician certify that he or she has exhausted all other treatment options and is unable to participate in a clinical trial. The patient must also provide informed consent to the physician and the physician may not be compensated by the manufacturer of a treatment for certifying the patient.  The patient, physician and manufacturer must all agree on the treatment.

Furthermore, the medical product in question must have successfully completed a Phase 1 clinical trial and must be enrolled in an FDA clinical trial.  The treatment must be authorized by state law, which means that the state must have a Right to Try law – which 38 states currently have.

The manufacturers receive protection under Right to Try legislation, in that there can be no legal liability for injury that may result as a consequence of the medical product’s use, and adverse events that may occur during treatment will not negatively impact any eventual approval of the product by the FDA. 

In an overwhelming and increasingly rare bipartisan display (94-1), the Senate has already passed the Right to Try Act.  The House version is currently awaiting approval.

Critics Deny Democratic Choice 

Critics of Right to Try make several claims to undermine the expansion of choices it would bring to critically ill patients.  Some physicians and medical ethicists claim that the true goal of Right to Try is to weaken the FDA as the only objective and appropriate gatekeeper of drug approval and access.  Some also claim that the legislation is redundant because the FDA already fills this need through its expanded access program. 

Still other critics try to dissuade patients by surreptitiously noting that “scary” conservative and libertarian think tanks like Freedom Partners and Americans for Prosperity, which are partially funded by the Koch brothers, favor passage of Right to Try legislation.  These criticisms warrant thoughtful consideration, but are not substantive enough to overcome overarching concerns of patients literally dying from their pain.    

Ultimately, Right to Try and stem cell therapy are issues that embody the deepening and broadening of healthcare choice -- a choice that should be embraced by an informed American citizenry, a forward-thinking medical establishment and government agencies that must be by and for the people. 

Carefully curated expansions of choice -- that privilege the humane while also giving due consideration to patient protection – serve as the foundation of all truly democratic institutions.  The FDA should accept that it can better serve people by acceding some of its authority and become more lean and nimble in the process.  Bigger is not always better.

Right to Try will not solve all the problems associated with stem cell therapy.  There is no way to predict with any precision how the law will operate legally or logistically, whether for stem cell therapies or other drugs and medical products.  Additionally, the Trump administration must revisit and revise the FDA’s stem cell guidance, specifically its limits on stem cells which are harvested, processed and administered to the same person to relieve conditions such as chronic pain.    

However, for advocates of stem cell therapy and health choice in general, Right to Try is a step in the right direction.

A. Rahman Ford.jpg

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. He earned his PhD at the University of Pennsylvania.

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 should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It 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.