May 20, 2021

Cord blood conflicts at the journal Stem Cells Translational Medicine

Cord blood conflicts at the journal Stem Cells Translational Medicine


The journal Stem Cells Translational Medicine has a long track record of publishing great work. I also have a lot of respect for the editors there and I’ve published there myself. But a few recent events have sparked concerns including over possible undisclosed conflicts of interest in some papers there about cord blood for autism.

Because of how much I like the journal it gets tricky to criticize it.

Still, some issues warrant discussion.

Cord blood conflicts at the journal Stem Cells Translational Medicine
A unit of cord blood like that used for Duke’s and other’s autism trials.

Stem Cells Translational Medicine published stem cell clinic paper in 2019

This story began in 2019 but bubbled back up yesterday

Back then in 2019 I noted that Stem Cells Translational Medicine published a paper on cord blood stem cells for autism by a for-profit stem cell clinic in Panama called the Stem Cell Institute (SCI) run by Neil Riordan.

In my view it was very puzzling that the editors accepted the clinic paper. I saw it as inconclusive at best. I also noted that it seemed the authors were charging families for trial participation for their kids, but they did not appear to disclose that in the paper.

I wrote a polite blog post voicing my concerns about the journal’s decision to publish the paper. I also contacted the editors behind the scenes by email and we chatted a bit. Nothing happened.

Turner-Synder 2021 paper digs more into clinic paper issues including COI

Yesterday Leigh Turner (lead author) and Jeremey Snyder published a new piece in Stem Cells Translational Medicine pointing out concerning ethical issues with the same SCI autism paper by Riordan, et al. including the pay-for-play aspect. I highly recommend this piece.

They document the undisclosed COI and point out that the authors’ failure to disclose financial conflicts of interest seems to violate Stem Cells Translational Medicine‘s editorial policies.

Will anything come of these issues?

I doubt it, but we’ll see.

Playing defense with accompanying Kurtzberg editorial?

Accompanying the Turner-Snyder piece was an opinion piece co-authored by Stem Cells Translational Medicine‘s Cord Blood Section Editor Joanne Kurtzberg of Duke, which made some waves on Twitter. The piece by Kurtzberg and co-Section Editor Karen Ballen is entitled, “Exploring new therapies for children with autism: “Do no harm” does not mean do not try.”

In a sense their piece is a defense of doing cord blood research for autism in general and of  Stem Cells Translational Medicine for publishing the SCI clinic paper. However, one might also see it as a defense of Kurtzberg’s own research at Duke on cord blood for autism as well.

So far the clinical science does not support cord blood or cord blood stem cells for autism, but Kurtzberg and Ballen try to be encouraging. Disappointing outcomes like studies consistently missing primary endpoints aren’t discussed much.

Their editorial also discusses another controversial autism paper published by Stem Cells Translational Medicine that used intrathecal administration of bone marrow mononuclear (non-stem cells) for autism. I see that study and paper as also having big problems. Why was it published? Was Kurtzberg the editor for that piece?

It’s also interesting to speculate why Stem Cells Translational Medicine published the Kurtzberg and Ballen opinion piece with the Turner and Snyder piece. Was it an attempt to push back against the criticisms? I asked Snyder and Turner for comment on this situation and here is what Snyder told me:

“It was disappointing to see that our piece was accompanied by an editorial by the editors of the issue that uncritically cited the Riordan et al. article we flagged. I hope that their calls for transparency are accompanied by acts of transparency about the conflicts of interest we identified.”

Blogs are bad

It caught my attention that Kurtzberg and Ballen also make a point in their piece of criticizing blogs as a means for discussing science (emphasis mine):

“At SCTM, we feel that it is important to publish manuscripts describing early phase clinical trials in this new and emerging area. The early studies will not be perfect, but with transparent and constructive discussion among the stakeholders, in peer-reviewed medical journals—not through social networks or blogs—accurate information will be disseminated and subsequent studies will be improved. These scientific publications will also be vetted by review teams and critiqued in a way that improves the overall quality of their manuscripts. This practice should also encourage the “bad actors” to present their results in a legitimate scientific journal rather than in the lay press or through testimonials or on blogs.”

I wonder if in part this mention of blogs was a reference to The Niche here as I’ve been critical of Duke’s autism program. Sure, blogs can have their issues, but they also are a unique means to spark important discussions quickly.

The Duke team is persistently upbeat about the idea of cord blood for autism and cord blood for CP despite their own data and that of others mostly being discouraging.

I also recently wrote critically about reverberations between Kurtzberg, Duke, and the SCI. Yes, the same SCI that authored that paper at the heart of much of this.

The negative mention of blogs by Kurtzberg and Gallen here also reminder me of a short opinion piece some years back in Science led by Richard Burt of Northwestern. Burt’s piece was critical of me and The Niche for supposedly not being able to “separate the wheat from the chaff.” I had earlier been critical of Burt’s stem cells for autoimmune program for many reasons including requiring payments by patients. Some of my efforts had been discussed in a piece in Science so I saw this as Burt pushing back.

Note that Burt’s autoimmune stem cell program was later completely shut down without a clear explanation by Northwestern.

Kurtzberg’s editorial has its own possible undisclosed COI?

Finally, I also thought it surprising that at the end of the Kurtzberg and Ballen opinion piece defending cord blood research for autism that they declared no conflicts of interest.

Kurtzberg is a Medical Director and Board Member of Cryo-Cell, a publicly-traded cord blood company that also has a big deal with Kurtzberg’s autism group at Duke.

That’s not a conflict?

I hope that Stem Cells Translational Medicine leadership will give this all some further consideration.

Note that I have a new piece in the works on Duke and Cryo-Cell’s plans to try to inject a vastly larger number of children including those with CP and autism with unproven cord blood cells in an off-study manner. Large family payments would be required. Stay tuned.



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