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Michael Hiltzik: Legit stem cell experts in uproar over inclusion in film funded by suspect clinics

Michael Hiltzik, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Business News

If there's anything that drives legitimate stem cell scientists up a wall, it's their being lumped in with clinics offering unwary customers supposedly effective disease treatments through stem cell injections.

So you can understand why a documentary series titled "The Healthcare Revolution," which is partially funded by a network of clinics that are hawking unproven therapies and are under fire from the Food and Drug Administration, has created an uproar among academic researchers.

As many as a dozen legitimate scientists have demanded the removal of interviews with them featured in the documentaries. Several say they were misled into lending their credibility to a project that promotes treatments that are scientifically unproven and could be dangerous. They were led to believe that they would be participating in a project about legitimate scientific progress in the field, complete with sober cautions that much of this work is still in its infancy.

"You have placed my interview among those of people who are charlatans and thieves," stem cell biologist Jeanne Loring of the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla wrote last week to Sara Sheehan, a producer of the series, in a letter republished by the California Stem Cell Report. Sheehan has apparently complied with her request to be removed from the documentary. Loring was the first scientist to sound the alarm about the series for the academic community.

The producers say they will honor similar requests from other researchers and from California's stem cell research program, the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), whose president, Maria Millan, had been included in the documentary. The necessary changes will delay the distribution of what originally was to be a 12-episode series, which was to begin online Monday. At the moment, only two promotional clips and the opening episode can be viewed online.

The researchers say they were provided in advance only with videos of the installments in which their interviews appeared. Only after they consulted the website promoting the film did they discover that its thrust would exploit their credibility to lend legitimacy to treatments lacking any scientific validity.

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"It's a package that's very misleading and not balanced," says Evan Snyder of Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute. "It was pitched like it would be a 'Nova,'" he said, referring to the scientific series produced for the Public Broadcasting System, "but it came out like an infomercial."

Lawrence S.B. Goldstein of UC San Diego says he was led to believe the producers were making a "balanced, sober documentary." The trailer for the series posted on its website, however, was infused with hype -- "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."

CIRM says it asked that Millan's interview be removed because the series "risked giving a distorted view for anyone who saw it and ... inadvertently legitimized opportunistic bad actors."

Here's some context. Stem cells, which can develop into specialized tissues, theoretically bear great promise for treating such diseases as diabetes, Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and multiple sclerosis. But the research is arduous and in most cases inconclusive. The FDA has approved stem-cell-based treatment only for blood-forming stem cells in very limited circumstances.

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