Sunday, June 09, 2019

Captain Kirk, Snake Oil and Stem Cell Treatments

It's time for stem cell whack-a-mole.

That's the game where regulators -- coming in late -- try to prevent snake-oil clinics from harming desperate patients with purported stem cell treatments and ripping off them for thousands of dollars.  

More than 1,000 dubious clinics are estimated to exist across the country with the largest number in California, which is lagging in its regulatory efforts.  More spring up every day with even Captain Kirk of Star Trek weighing in on the alleged benefits of the unregulated procedures.

William Wan of the Washington Post captured the national scene in an article late on Friday. He said don't get too excited about a favorable court decision involving one operation in Florida, which claims to turn body fat into beneficial stem cells.

Wan wrote,
"(T)he company said it would follow the federal judge’s ruling and stop selling the fat-based procedure. But it quickly followed up with a clarification: It would continue offering stem cell treatments, but instead of fat, rely on patients’ bone marrow and other tissues to harvest the cells it claims can cure conditions as varied as spinal cord injuries and erectile dysfunction.
"'It’s a bit like playing whack-a-mole,' said Peter Marks, FDA’s top official for biologic products."
The situation has been building for long time. Wan wrote,
“After years of largely ignoring the issue, the FDA is finally making more of an effort, but it’s not as if this marketplace is melting away,” said Leigh Turner, a bioethicist at the University of Minnesota. 
"Because no one had documented exactly how many stem cell clinics existed, Turner — working with collaborators (UC Davis researcher Paul Knoepfler) — began tracking them in a database several years ago. In 2009, there appeared to be only two in the United States; by 2017, there were at least 700. Turner believes there are currently more than 1,000."
"Turner compared the for-profit stem cell industry to a balloon. As the FDA and consumer advocates squeeze one end, other parts of the enterprise expand. 'For every one that’s disappeared, we’re finding seven more that are popping up.'"
Wan noted another effort in California that could affect a number of clinics. 
"Meanwhile, the government is pushing forward in a second federal court lawsuit against another stem cell business in California. That lawsuit has the potential to halt the fat-based stem cell treatment in multiple clinics because the government filed it against a company called Cell Surgical Network, which serves as an umbrella for dozens of affiliated clinics around the country."
An attempt to step up state regulation in California, however, has ground to a halt. Legislation (AB617) by Assemblyman Kevin Mullin, D-San Mateo, is now not even on life support. It is buried in the Assembly Appropriations Committee. Its content could surface in another measure that still has some technical life in the Capitol, but the outlook is more than dim. 

The scene is not much brighter with California's medical board. Last year said it would look into the dubious clinics. In April, it said hearings might begin no later than early this month. Nonetheless, a check of the agency's web site this weekend did not turn up any notice of such a meeting.

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