Horrified researchers want out of “infomercial” for shady stem-cell clinics

Around a dozen prominent stem-cell experts said this week that they have been duped into appearing in a documentary series some described as an infomercial for the unproven and dangerous stem-cell treatments peddled by clinics now facing federal charges.

The researchers said they had originally agreed to do interviews for the project believing it was for a sober, educational documentary on legitimate stem-cell research—which holds medical potential but is still largely unproven to benefit patients.

Just days before the documentary’s intended release of June 17, however, researchers say they were horrified to learn that the 10-part series, titled hypes dubious stem-cell treatments as miracle cures and gives false hope to desperate patients. The revelation was first reported by the San Francisco Chronicle.

The researchers soon after discovered that the series was partially funded by the Cell Surgical Network, a for-profit chain of clinics currently facing federal charges for selling stem-cell treatments without approval from the Food and Drug Administration and failing to adhere to safety regulations. Hundreds of such questionable clinics have popped up around the country in recent years.

Moreover, the documentary features Kristin Comella, the chief scientific officer of US Stem Cell Clinic. In 2017, medical researchers reported that at least three women went blind after receiving dubious treatments at the clinic. In the trailer for the documentary, Comella is quoted as saying that, although she had been “crucified” for just “a handful of adverse events,” her clinic has “helped tens of thousands of patients” and that “nobody can take that away from me.”

This month a federal judge backed the FDA in deeming the clinic’s treatments illegal and issued an injunction preventing it from continuing to administer treatments.

Charlatans and thieves

Jeanne Loring, one of the researchers interviewed for the docu-series, struck on this point, writing in a letter to producer Sara Sheehan that FDA leaders “have denounced these unregulated clinics as ‘bad actors,’ and I would go further—I think they are criminals.”

Loring, a stem-cell biologist and professor emeritus at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California, added that she had not seen any evidence that the types of treatments used in the for-profit clinics have “any medical value.” But she said she had “met many people who have paid many thousands of dollars to obtain unregulated (and therefore unsafe) treatments that claim that stem cells will magically cure any disease.”

She and other researchers are now demanding that Sheehan and her co-producer husband, Bobby Sheehan, delete them from the series.

“You have placed my interview among those of people who are charlatans and thieves, and I request that you remove all reference to me in the video and on your website,” Loring wrote.

The Sheehans have told the researchers and reporters that they will honor their requests. So far, little of the series is available online.

Based on the available glimpses, includes glowing patient testimonials and portrays the Food and Drug Administration as an impediment to lifesaving treatment. The documentary’s website touts the series as including “over 80 physicians and scientists [from] around the globe hailing from top universities and medical institutions.” Those universities included Harvard, Stanford, Johns Hopkins, and the University of Pennsylvania—until the mass exodus, at least. And, according to the site, those experts were going to talk about how the stem-cell technology that is “said to be 10, 20, years down the road is actually here—NOW!”

Subjective miracles

Another researcher interviewed for the documentary, Lawrence S.B. Goldstein of UC San Diego, told the Los Angeles Times that he was among those who requested to be deleted after seeing the website. “It sounded like miracle cures from stem cells are here today—‘Give us your money and we’ll fix you up,’ giving false hope to people suffering from terrible diseases.”

Loring and Goldstein only learned of the website and the nature of the documentary after the Cell Surgical Network—which partially funded it—promoted it to its clients in a mass emailing, according to the Times. One of those patients was a woman suing the clinic for allegedly blinding her with a stem-cell treatment. She forwarded the email to her lawyer, who then got in touch with Loring. Word spread from Loring, and researchers started pulling out late last week.

In response, Mark Berman, a founder of Cell Surgical Network, penned an open letter Sunday to the researchers, saying that dropping out of the documentary was a “knee-jerk reaction.” He also claimed that the renowned researchers “do not know about some of the amazing basic science research we have funded, nor do they know about the hundreds of patients that we have treated.”

The Sheehans, meanwhile, told reporters that they were surprised that their interviewees were appalled by the content. In comments to the Times, Bobby Sheehan said they “had no idea that Cell Surgical Network was radioactive in this space.” He said they were aware of the federal charges and the scientists’ concerns, including that Loring considers the clinic’s work illegitimate. But, he said he thought of it as a matter of opinion. “Until Cell Surgical loses their case against the FDA, or wins the case, [Loring’s] definition of legitimate stem-cell science is a point of view,” he said.

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