Getting older? Feeling the aches and pains that come naturally as we age? If someone suggests that stem cells will ease your ills, ask to see some science, and maybe a valid medical license. Stem cell purveyors are popping up all over the United States in a new, “largely unregulated” industry — and they’re charging $5,000 to $10,000 for a single injection.
As Caroline Chen reports as part of a joint investigation by ProPublica and The New Yorker, “Unscientific methods, deceptive marketing, price gouging and disregard for patients’ well-being were rampant across the amniotic stem cell therapy industry.” The investigation “found disgraced doctors who were recast as salespeople, manufacturers that cloaked themselves in pseudoscience and had few scientists on staff, and clinics that offer to treat conditions like multiple sclerosis or kidney disease without specialized training.”
These clinics are multiplying in the United States. According to a tally by Leigh Turner, an associate professor of bioethics at the University of Minnesota, there were 12 such clinics advertising to consumers in 2009; in 2017, there were more than 700. Unproven cellular therapies are a $2 billion global business, according to a recent paper co-authored by Massimo Dominici, the lead investigator at the cellular therapy lab at the University of Modena and Reggio Emilia, in Italy.
They were there to see a presentation by Dr. David Greene, who was introduced as a “retired orthopedic surgeon.” Atlas Medical Center, a local clinic that specializes in pain treatment, hosted the event. Greene, a short, trim man with his hair slicked up, ignored the stage and microphone and stood close to his audience. After warming up the crowd with a joke about his inept golf skills, Greene launched into his sales pitch. A tiny vial no larger than the palm of his hand, he told the group, contains roughly 10 million live stem cells, harvested from the placenta, amniotic fluid, umbilical cord or amnion, the membrane that surrounds the fetus in the womb. Injected into a joint or spine, or delivered intravenously into the bloodstream, Greene told his listeners, those cells could ease whatever ailed them.
On a screen behind him, Greene displayed a densely printed slide with a “small list” of conditions his stem cell product could treat: arthritis, tendinitis, psoriasis, lupus, hair loss, facial wrinkles, scarring, erectile dysfunction, heart failure, cardiomyopathy, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, asthma, emphysema, stroke, Alzheimer’s disease, multiple sclerosis, ALS, neuropathy, pelvic pain, diabetes, dry eye, macular degeneration, kidney failure. And that was just a sample. “I need to add a couple more slides,” Greene said with a laugh.
Soni told Longo that three more injections were required for him to feel a significant difference, but, by early May, Longo had decided not to seek further treatment, saying that his left knee hadn’t improved any more. “I don’t think the regenerative properties were happening,” Longo said.
Earlier this year, Soni’s Web site displayed the names and faces of a team of clinicians, including a cardiologist, a cosmetologist, a neurologist, and a urologist. None of them were listed on New York State’s license look-up page, and their photos were traced back to stock photo websites.
When initially asked about these specialists, Soni said, “They are all seeing patients for me” and changed the subject. After ProPublica and The New Yorker expressed doubts about the clinicians’ existence to Soni, the names and photos vanished from the website.