Startling -- and Troubling -- Developments in the Celltex Bioethics Scandal

Article excerpt

Last week, I wrote about the medical ethics storm surrounding bioethicist Glenn McGee, who took a job with Celltex Therapeutics in Houston, a controversial new company that is apparently marketing unlicensed stem cells therapies.

The most famous patient associated with Celltex is Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who reportedly received stem cell injections for back pain from a doctor associated with the company and who has supported legislation that would make it easier for companies like Celltex to operate in his state.

Celltex's owner, David Eller, a former Dupont executive and chairman of the Board of Regents at Texas A&M University, has been a major donor to Perry's political campaigns.

As I noted last week, two University of Minnesota bioethicists, Leigh Turner and Dr. Carl Elliott, have been among the most vocal critics of both McGee and Celltex.

Well, this week, this bizarre, tangled and fast-moving story has taken some surprising -- and troubling -- turns.

On Wednesday, the journal Nature reported more details about how Celltex "is involved in the clinical use of [stem] cells on US soil, which the FDA has viewed as illegal in other cases." Indeed, reporter David Cyranoski notes that one Celltex patient has been blogging about the stem-cell treatments she has been receiving from the company for multiple sclerosis. Cyranoski was unable to reach that patient, but he did speak with Dr. Jamshid Lofti, the Houston neurologist who injected the cells into the woman. He acknowledged that the injections had been made -- and that both he and Celltex had charged the patient for them. (Lofti said he gets $500 per injection and that Celltex charges the patient $7,000 per 200 million cells.)

As Cyranski notes, other stem-cell scientists say such activities by Celltex are highly questionable:

Because we know so little about mesenchymal stem cells and whether they are indeed effective for treating any condition, I'd be very wary of how they are being infused into patients, and certainly concerned if practitioners are charging patients for medical procedures that haven't been proven to work and could in fact be harmful," says George Daley, director of the Stem Cell Transplantation Program at Harvard Medical School in Boston, Massachusetts, who helped the ISSCR to draft its guidelines. In the opinion of Arnold Kriegstein, director of the Eli and Edythe Broad Center of Regeneration Medicine and Stem Cell Research at the University of California, San Francisco, "the very nature of Celltex's business plan, which involves charging patients considerable fees for so-called treatments for diseases and disorders for which there is no good clinical evidence of efficacy, crosses an ethical line. …

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