December 3, 2022

California stem cell institute inflated voters’ hopes, says scientist

The hard work of researchers has been overshadowed by hucksters

Supporters of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine are gearing up for a campaign to persuade voters to approve US$5.5 billion in funding, plus interest, to keep it running. Details are still sketchy but a leading stem cell scientist has spoken out in Nature in support of the initiative.

Jeanne F. Loring,  director of the Center for Regenerative Medicine at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, says that “stem-cell researchers in California have been the envy of the world” because of the CIRM. It has been the source of almost all of her funding.

However, she recognises that persuading voters will be far harder in 2020 than in 2004. Although the original campaign was sold with promises of miracle cures, “No CIRM-supported therapy has been approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).” Unsurprisingly, this has resulted in “dashed expectations”.

The biggest drawback of the CIRM was something that none of its supporters anticipated back in 2004. The public believed the hype and started to patronise stem-cell snake oil salesmen. “The agency’s work has inadvertently helped to boost unregulated, for-profit ‘clinics’ claiming, without sound evidence, that cells derived from fat, bone marrow, placenta and other tissues can cure any disease,” writes Loring.

Unfortunately, others are taking advantage of the publicity. More than 700 businesses offer what they call stem-cell therapies for many maladies, including neurological conditions, such as autism spectrum disorder, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease and stroke. They often charge thousands of dollars. An analysis this year (W. Fu et al. J. Am. Med. Assoc. 321, 2463–2464; 2019) found that fewer than half of these places employ physicians who are trained in all of the conditions that they purport to treat. There are multiple reports of unapproved, unregulated therapies leaving some people blind and others with harmful tumours on their spines.

CIRM has regularly denounced these clinics, which existed before the institute’s creation and will persist as long as they can make money. Still, it is easy to understand how public enthusiasm would spill over to those offering quackery.

Unfortunately, the hard work of conscientious, ethical researchers is being overshadowed by the fly-by-night clinics offering those miracle cures., she argues.

My colleagues and I are horrified that we might be lumped with these bad actors. They exploit people and put them at risk. They confuse people by pretending to be in the scientific community and are why the term ‘stem cell’ has become synonymous with ‘snake oil’.

This conflation is, in my view, one reason that, just as stem-cell researchers have advanced projects to the point of launching expensive clinical trials, financial support is ebbing away.

Michael Cook is editor of BioEdge

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