"The undercover investigation you're about to see today is going to make you really angry, because we're exposing the worst kind of scam — one that takes advantage of those most vulnerable, stealing not just their money, but their hope, their dignity."
That's how Dr. Mehmet Oz introduces a series of segments scheduled to run on his daytime television program Tuesday. His quarry: those for-profit clinics offering supposed stem cell treatments for an implausible host of diseases — unproven, unlikely and very expensive cures.
We reported on this noisome corner of medical pseudo-science last year, outlining the absence of scientific support for their treatment and their intensive marketing pitches to hopeful patients. We reported that in a survey of "stem cell tourism," stem cell scientist Paul Knoepfler of UC Davis and bioethicist Leigh Turner of the University of Minnesota identified 570 clinics around the U.S. offering stem cell "interventions." Scores were concentrated in such "hotspots" as Beverly Hills, Phoenix and New York. Many were offering unproven therapies featuring the term "stem cell" as a marketing veneer.
Dr. Oz's investigation of these clinics is a worthy addition to public awareness. It's must-viewing for patients and families desperate enough to contemplate turning to such clinics for succor, and for state and federal regulators and law enforcement agencies that should be riding herd on them but have almost universally given them a pass. Oz calls on the Food and Drug Administration and other regulators to "step in and stop this now, that's how bad it's become."
We've been critical of Dr. Oz in the past for purveying untested medical nostrums, as have many other critics. But his investigation of the stem cell clinics is a model of public service. He musters his entire arsenal of crowd-pleasing techniques — his forceful, impassioned delivery, his cultivated aura of medical authority, and his credibility with his audience — to the best purpose.
The investigation is the product of the show's so-called medical unit and its chief of staff, Michael Crupain, a medical doctor and public health specialist who was hired from Consumer Reports about a year and a half ago. At one point during his research for the program Crupain dialed in to a "webinar" in which prospective patients were recruited by a clinic. "It was like watching someone sell a time-share," he told me — an observation that made it into the show.
The three segments, which take up about half of Tuesday's scheduled program, include undercover visits to clinics in New York by Elizabeth Leamy, a reporter on the program, along with a former patient. At one point we see a clinic employee claim that he's treated 44 patients for multiple sclerosis, and "every single patient had vast improvement." The investigators are pitched $15,000 treatments and encouraged to "spread it out" on their credit cards. (No insurer will cover these untested and unproven therapies.) One promoter seen on tape acknowledges to the undercover team, "We don't know the exact mechanism of everything we do," but counsels them, "We just know that it works, we use it. If it works and it's safe [and] … it's reasonable in cost, you know, why not?"
Why not, indeed? Because the targets of these pitches are at the end of their rope, vulnerable to scamsters, and often have to make immense sacrifices to pay the fees. "Doctors and others can prey on their vulnerability," Oz observes.
Oz displays a list of the conditions the clinics claim to treat — joint pain, autism, Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, stroke, emphysema, and blindness, among many others. He explains that it's impossible for a one-size-fits-all treatment to cure them all: "It defies basic medical know-how, which means they are not telling us the truth." He lucidly describes their supposed technique, which involves extracting stem cells from the patients by liposuction, separating the stem cells by centrifuge and treating them with some sort of enzyme, then reinjecting them in the patient's body and waiting for the concoction to do its magic.
He offers a withering assessment of doctors who claim to be engaged in clinical trials of stem cell treatments but "ask you to give money upfront and mortgage your house and borrow from your friends' credit cards — that's not how medicine should be practiced."
Oz is assisted by talk show host and multiple sclerosis patient Montel Williams and Sally Temple, a stem cell scientist who is president of the International Society for Stem Cell Research. Temple explains that real research into stem cell treatments takes years and aims to develop treatments that can receive FDA approval. She quite properly underscores the danger to legitimate research posed by bogus clinics offering medically dubious treatments.
"They're saying they can cure a whole host of diseases, and we know they can't," she says. "We are really concerned that it's going to undermine the genuinely good work that's being done."
Crupain considers the stem cell investigation to be "Dr. Oz at his best." He's right.