Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Digging into the 'Stem Cell Hard Sell:' Researcher Ventures Into 'Lion's Den'

A California stem cell researcher went "semi-undercover" recently and attended a commercial "educational seminar" that promoted stem cell treatments and handed out requests for credit information from those attending.

Paul Knoepfler -- UC Davis photo
Paul Knoepfler of UC Davis recorded his experience at the session in an article this week in the Stem Cells Translational Medicine, which was founded in 2011 with $600,000 from the California stem cell agency.

Knoepfler did not identify the stem cell clinic that conducted the session. He said he wanted instead to be able to use a "higher degree of frankness" in writing about the session. Knoepfler noted, however, that he was quickly spotted by one of the organizers, some of whom lurked around him during the session. Knoepfler wrote on his blog Monday, 
"It was an intense experience and one where I felt at risk. To some extent it is akin to  going into the lion’s den. I didn’t know what reaction I would get if I were recognized by those running the seminar, which in fact did happen. They did not seem happy at all that I was there even though I wasn’t disruptive in the least. I had hoped to ask a few questions from my place in the audience, but the format did not allow it. Still I wondered if I could be kicked out. That didn’t happen."
The clinic involved is one of at least 570 across the country. Earlier this summer, Knoepfler and Leigh Turner, a University of Minnesota bioethicist, were the first to report on the scope of what passes for the commercial stem cell clinic industry in the United States when they documented the existence of those clinics.

About 30 people attended the session Knoepfler was at, including some who obviously had "serious medical conditions." He wrote,
"The seminar team (mostly dressed in medical scrubs) handed out a clipboard to each attendee with three pieces of paper very much like those that one might be given on arriving at a new doctor's office. We were told to fill in our information and then to return the sheets back to them before we left. Notably, the top sheet was a credit application. On another page, the clinic asked for extensive personal information, including name, age, birthdate, address, e-mail and phone number. Additional questions asked about medical conditions, as well as medical tests that had already been conducted." 
Knoepfler said several medical claims were made during the meeting including that the treatments had no side effects, were safer than the normal standard of care, did not pose immune rejection problems, were federally approved and were specifically effective for arthritis and pain.

The price of the treatment was $5,999 but attendees could get $1,000 off "if you sign up today at the seminar." Attendees were told that the clinic was heavily booked already with a one to two month waiting period.

In the piece about his foray into the "lion's den," Knoepfler wrote,
“Given the growing realization that there are hundreds of stem cell clinics in the U.S. today in 2016 and the observation that many hold recruitment seminars, it is possible that thousands of members of the public each year are attending infomercial seminars that provide misleading or even outright factually incorrect information about stem cells and questionable medical claims. This could not only lead many patients to receive unnecessary, unsafe or ineffectual treatments, but it may also contribute to public confusion about stem cells and the field of stem cell clinical research. These seminars represent only one type of an assortment of recruitment methods, including Internet, radio, newspaper, and television ads for various clinics, which may also contain dubious statements. I believe that such stem cell clinic marketing poses a significant threat to public perception and understanding of the legitimate stem cell translational medicine field.”
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