Somehow time has flown by so that I’ve been around for ages in the stem cell universe and some unproven stem cell clinic type firms, like the well-known Panama stem cell clinic that sells autism “treatments”, are also long-timers.
It’s been an odd parallel existence for more than a decade.
Both the Panama clinic place, run by Neil Riordan and called simply enough The Stem Cell Institute, Texas stem cell clinic Celltex, and the Regenexx clinic brand come to mind in this long-termer category. These three firms are quite different though. I’ve written many times before about Celltex and a bit about Regenexx, but less so about The Stem Cell Institute. My most recent item on this Panama place was related to the puzzling threads between them and the Duke Autism Program.
Today’s post is focused squarely on this Panama stem cell clinic. Think of it as a fact-check or a scientific review of a sort. Overall, I believe there are serious reasons for concern about The Stem Cell Institute.
The Stem Cell Institute aka the Panama stem cell clinic
There are stem cell clinics all over the world, but some draw more attention and customers than others. I also view some as posing potentially higher or lower risks on different levels.
The Stem Cell Institute in Panama strikes me as risky on some specific levels such as having many children getting unproven cellular injections as part of their business model. This place seems particularly successful with their PR too.
I don’t know about you, but for me the name “institute” implies a non-profit research institution, but to the best of my knowledge The Stem Cell Institute is a for-profit. While it does some research, I don’t see that as its primary mission.
What they sell
The Stem Cell Institute offers injections for a wide menu of health conditions using umbilical cord and other kinds of cells. You can see a screenshot I took from their website recently to get a sense of their marketing.
It’s strikingly diverse, raising the question for me of how one place can purportedly have the expertise to try to treat so many different conditions.
To cover all of these conditions with care and expertise I’d say that you’d need a neurologist, an immunologist, an orthopedist, a cardiologist, and pediatric physician specialists of several kinds.
Do they have the needed medical staff with board certifications in so many different specialties?
Who works at The Stem Cell Institute?
In regard to the above question, who are the doctors and other staff at the Panama stem cell clinic?
Last I checked their website, they listed 7 physicians in total including a medical director, a clinical trials research physician, and staff physicians.
Only the first 3 doctors listed have bios describing their training. Do they have the needed expertise?
Lack of expertise & specialty training?
Of these 3, the Medical Director, Jorge Paz-Rodriguez, MD, appears to be an internist. Hernan H. Hernandez, MD may be a hematologist. Dr. Cindy Leu may be a general practitioner. I wasn’t able to clear up if she has a specialty.
The clinical trials doctor listed, Giselle Fernandez, MD, also might be a GP, but I’m not positive. As to the staff physicians, I was not able to determine if they have any specialties or are GPs despite looking around on the web and watching some videos. Leader Neil Riordan is a Ph.D., not an M.D.
Overall, as a result of the lack of information and the nature of what I could find, in my opinion, it does not seem like this clinic clearly has the needed expertise to treat so many medical conditions and patients ranging from pediatric to geriatric. In my view, this increases risks for patients.
If these Stem Cell Institute physicians have more specialty training than I could find, I will update this post.
Lack of rigorous, conclusive data
I also view the offerings of The Stem Cell Institute as lacking in rigorous data to back them up. Neil Riordan has some publications, but the research in these papers relevant to what they are selling is not convincing at all to me. It does not show that the stem cell offerings, such as umbilical cord MSCs, actually work. The papers also do not indicate that they are definitely safe for the conditions being marketed.
The clinical studies generally do not have placebo controls, randomization, or double-blinding. If you are developing an as yet unproven cellular therapy, it may be fine to have early phase trials without placebos, etc., but if you are already marketing and injecting folks with this unproven stuff and charging for it, it’s an entirely different situation. The Stem Cell Institute seems to me to be putting the cart before the horse. Note that while others have done research on cord blood cells for autism including Duke, the data are generally very discouraging.
Cost of stem cell therapy in Panama: $16,000-$30,000 and up
It is expensive to go to the Stem Cell Institute. Their own website mentions the cost as follows, “$15,825 USD for children and $23,150 for adults.” An important paper this year in Cytology by Jeremy Snyder and Leigh Turner, focusing in part on reverberations between the Stem Cell Institute and Duke, also discussed cost and fit into this general price range.
Like many stem cell clinics abroad and even in the US, the cost often ends up being a package including a hotel stay and ground transportation.
There are also many fundraising campaigns on GoFundMe that mention Panama stem cells and sometimes include patients mentioning about what they paid. All of this is generally consistent with a price range of $16,000-$30,000.
As with other clinics, the cost can go much higher than what is stated. Factors influencing cost include the number of injections and the type of condition. If you get several injections or go on multiple occasions over the course of months or years, the costs can go way up, even into the high tens of thousands.
Also, one should factor in the odds of attaining success in the medical condition that is the problem and with unproven stem cells the odds of real documented success in my view are very low. Then there are risks as well.
Take home message
Overall, in my view there is a low probability of efficacy from what is being sold at this firm in Panama and we can’t be sure about safety. At least some of the cells being sold are amplified in a lab, potentially increasing safety risks. As I said earlier, I also worry about the apparent lack of relevant (and I’d say crucially needed) medical specialty training.
As a Ph.D. I cannot give medical advice, but as a stem cell biologist and long observer of clinical research in this arena as well as of unproven stem cell clinics, I personally would not go to this clinic or have a friend or loved one go.
- Boosted by celebrity endorsements and a controversial research program, clinics are peddling stem cell autism treatments questioned by experts, Tom Porter, Business Insider, January 2021.
- Experts question rationale for stem cell trial for autism, Hannah Furfaro, Spectrum, July 25, 2019.
- Should You Bank Your Baby’s Cord Blood?, Dana Najjar, New York Times, December 18, 2020.
- Infusion of human umbilical cord tissue mesenchymal stromal cells in children with autism spectrum disorder. Sun JM, Dawson G, Franz L, Howard J, McLaughlin C, Kistler B, Waters-Pick B, Meadows N, Troy J, Kurtzberg J. Stem Cells Transl Med. 2020 Oct;9(10):1137-1146. doi: 10.1002/sctm.19-0434.
- Stem cells and autism search, PubMed, February 2021.
Crowdfunding, stem cell interventions and autism spectrum disorder: comparing campaigns related to an international “stem cell clinic” and US academic medical center, Jeremy Snyder and Leigh Turner, Cytology, March 2021.