Monday, July 22, 2013

EXCLUSIVE: Is American Journalism Corrupted by Big Pharma Dollars?

There have been many breakthroughs recently in the study of adult (non-embryonic) stem cells. But the national media has all but ignored them. Most news outlets still seem to prefer perpetuating the tired and false notion that all adult stem cell researchers are con men and all patients who enroll in adult stem cell clinical trials are fools. It's simply not the case. Not any more.

Yes, there are still unethical players in this sector who take advantage of ailing, desperate patients willing to try anything. And yes, this is a relatively new field about which there is still much to learn. But a number of reputable companies that specialize in this research, including Medistem and Cytori Therapeutics, already have FDA-approved trials under way or in the pipeline for a variety of health conditions.

Evidently CBS News didn't get the memo. In a recent 60 Minutes report on adult stem cells that you can still view on the network's news site, anchor Scott Pelley breathlessly suggests that all people who work with adult stem cells are charlatans. It's an unfortunately flawed report from a network that has given us so much quality journalism. 

It doesn't take an economist to figure out what's at stake here, and not just for medical researchers. Like many major media organizations, CBS receives literally millions of advertising dollars each year from big pharmaceutical companies, some of which stand to lose billions of dollars in potential profits if some of these upstart stem cell companies are successful with their clinical trials and get their treatments to market.

I am far from anti-pharma. I am alive today because of a "Big Pharma" drug. But the pharmaceutical industry clearly doesn't want more competition from adult stem cell concerns. Example: The 60 Minutes story I mentioned above that warns of the dangers of adult stem cell companies is sponsored on the CBS website by drug giant Pfizer. I mean, could the network be any less subtle?

That the national press often ignores advances made in adult stem cell therapy is frustrating for many of the industry's CEOs and researchers, who tell me that biased media coverage has had a chilling effect on these companies' ability to raise money for their potentially breakthrough research.

Granted, 60 Minutes did expose Stem Tech labs, a company that appears to be taking advantage of patients with unproven treatments. But the TV news magazine made no mention of the fact that legitimate adult stem cell clinical trials are going on right now and are affiliated with some of this country's most esteemed medical institutions, including Yale, Johns Hopkins and Columbia.

And why would CBS ignore the work of companies such as Cytori, which is developing cell therapies based on autologous adipose-derived regenerative cells (ADRCs) to treat cardiovascular disease and repair soft tissue defects, or Medistem, which is developing technologies related to adult stem cell extraction, manipulation and use for treating inflammatory and degenerative diseases?

Medistem, whose lead product, the endometrial regenerative cell (ERC) is a "universal donor" stem cell derived from menstrual blood, recently obtained FDA clearance to begin trials in the U.S. for treatment of advanced peripheral artery disease. 

In the stem cell research world, there are embryonic, umbilical and adult stem cells. All are undifferentiated cells that can become any of the various tissues that make up the human body - blood cells, skin cells, nerve cells, etc. Researchers have wondered for years whether the genetic keys to these cells could be manipulated to deal with a variety of ailments, such as growing replacement organs.

There has been heated debate for years over embryonic stem cells on ethical and religious grounds. Many believe it is immoral to use these cells that result in the death of a human embryo. But adult stem cells don't pose this ethical dilemma, and they're showing much promise in labs worldwide.

Dr. Hugh Taylor, professor of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive sciences from Yale and a member of the staff of the Yale Stem Cell Center, tells me that the media is just "waiting for the next cure before it's ready to put the adult stem cell industry in any sort of positive light."

Adult stem cell research does have a few friends in some pretty high places, from the Vatican, which obviously prefers adult cells over embryonic cells on religious grounds, to the state of Texas, which now allows doctors to perform stem cell procedures if they receive approval from an institutional review board and patients sign informed consent forms. 

For that you can thank former presidential candidate and current Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who said he got relief from back pain after being injected with his own stem cells last year. Perry subsequently urged his staff to push the legislation through. 

Overall, though, adult stem cell researchers aren't getting a fair shake in the American press. And I can think of no other reason than the almighty dollars from the big, established drug companies, which I often support but not in this case.

Warren Sherman, a renowned cardiologist and director of stem cell research and regenerative medicine at Columbia, said that new adult stem cell-based treatments have emerged worldwide for diseases and maladies such as cancer, heart disease, spinal cord injury, Alzheimer's, diabetes, blindness, multiple sclerosis, autism and AIDS.

"There are dozens of adult stem cell clinical trials going on in the U.S. by legitimate companies," Sherman says. "But the media ignores this and instead chooses to focus on the charlatans in this field. I guess it makes for a better story."

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