Wednesday, May 02, 2018

A California Scientist's Eight-Year Journey into the Byways of Dubious 'Stem Cell' Clinics

You could call it the "Knoepfler Effect."

It has bounced noticeably around the country in recent months, leading to headlines in the Washington Post, the Atlanta Constitution, the Los Angeles Times and other outlets in Florida, Seattle and elsewhere.

It involves the activities of dubious, so-called "stem cell clinics" -- enterprises once ignored by the mainstream media, the Food and Drug Administration as well as other regulators, including California lawmakers, and much of the established stem cell scientific community.

Not so today. Here is a sampling of the recent news coverage:
Paul Knoepfler
UC Davis photo 
Over the last several months, these "stem cell" businesses have come under increasing scrutiny by media and regulators. Much of the credit for the attention must go to Paul Knoepfler, a stem cell researcher and blogger at UC Davis. About eight years ago, he began writing -- largely alone and in isolation -- on his blog about the problem. 

He was convinced that the persons lured into the "clinics" were paying large sums for so-called treatments that did not fulfill their promise and that, in fact, could be dangerous. In one case, Knoepfler went undercover -- sort of. He later tangled politely with the leading newspaper in California's state capital about how it was carrying full page ads from an unregulated clinic.

The watershed moment came in 2016 when Knoepfler and Leigh Turner of the University of Minnesota put a number to the matter -- 570 dubious "stem cell" firms nationwide with California leading the nation with 113. That was the key. Readers and regulators like solid numbers. They help focus attention, providing a hook for action and creating a new understanding.  Knoepfler and Turner's peer-reviewed scientific journal piece was the biggest stem cell story in the country that week.

Knoepfler also learned about the media game. He promptly returned media emails and calls and couched his responses in plain English -- "good quotes," as they are known in the trade.

Knoefler persisted even while some of his peers looked disparagingly at his blogging.  Back in 2012, one told Knoepfler that he was "skeptical of scientific social media with its 'twitting and the blobs(cq)'."

In California, however, his work helped to lead to a new law that forces the "stem cell" enterprises to inform their customers more fully about the nature of what might happen to their bodies.

It is a ticklish business to credit a specific individual with triggering a fresh wave of public attention to new and complex issues, such as stem cells and their dubious exploitation. Turner and others have been involved as well and deserve considerable credit. But Knoepfler was at the forefront and did, in fact, take a few arrows for his work.

The California Stem Cell Report asked Knoepfler for his brief thoughts about his stem cell adventures. He replied,
"Some highlights include times when patients decided not to get risky stem cells for themselves or their kids. I also have enjoyed getting to know so many cool people from diverse backgrounds all over the world I’ve only met because of the blog.
"Seeing things like the new California stem cell clinic law sprout up is exciting too, especially as now other states are trying to follow our state's lead it seems and maybe pass even better legislation. I’m also hopeful to have positive impact at the national level such as by somehow working a miracle to get the FDA to do more overall, but we’ll see how that turns out. 
"If that all sounds too cheery, then as my grandma might have said back in the 70s, 'It’s not all peaches and cream.' 
"There have been downsides too like various threats from clinics or their fans. I also feel like at times I’ve stepped in it with something I wrote or said when I could have avoided headaches if I had been wiser. Anyone can do that, but when you do it publicly such as on a blog then it’s got more bite to it. Doing all this stuff has risks to it. But overall it’s been worth it."  
A final note: People often shrug at the likelihood that they can make change in society. Many scientists as well shy from speaking out publicly, surrendering the public arena to snake oil peddlers. But the "Knoepfler Effect" stands as evidence that persistence and first-class work can, in fact, make a real difference in science and public policy. 


  1. Thanks for devoting a column to Paul. He is doing us all a great service and I am thankful that he is so willing to speak truth to power. Bravo, Paul! And bravo, David. You're doing this too.

  2. Richly deserved! Thanks for spotlighting one of our efforts most valuable scientist/advocate/writers!

  3. Leigh and also Doug Sipp deserve big credit on this front. These guys are leaders in this area and they started early, taking substantial risks to make a difference. There also are others who stepped up. For example, in the potentially dangerous stem cell situation in Italy, Elena Cattaneo and her colleagues put themselves out there big time.


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