KPBS reporter David Wagner has an important new piece out today on for-profit investigational stem cell treatments and he focuses to a large extent on a stem cell business in San Diego called Stemedica. If you’ve heard of this company it might be in part because they were involved in the Gordie Howe stem cells for stroke story that got so much buzz.

At a personal level the KPBS story is about the experience of patient Jim Gass, who received a number of non-FDA approved stem cell treatments outside the U.S. and ultimately ended up with a tumor on his spine. 

To be clear, Gass was not directly treated by Stemedica, but Wagner’s article makes the case that there are two relevant links with the stem cell business: a referral of Gass by a Stemedica director to a doctor in Mexico who did a treatment and the use of an MSC product made by Stemedica in that treatment.

Gass was brave enough to go public with his overall stem cell story a few months back. As part of her New York Times piece on Gass earlier this summer, Gina Kolata just briefly mentioned a possible indirect tie to Stemedica:

“I began doing research on the internet,” Mr. Gass said. He was particularly struck by the tale of the former football star and professional golfer John Brodie who had a stroke, received stem cell therapy in Russia and returned to playing golf again.

So Mr. Gass contacted a company, Stemedica, that had been involved with the clinic, and learned about a program in Kazakhstan. When Mr. Gass balked at going there, the Russian clinic referred him to a clinic in Mexico. That was the start of his odyssey.”

In the new piece on Jim Gass’ experience, Wagner provides additional concrete material on this situation in the form of emails to/from Gass, new information in the written part of the article, and via a startling video interview with Stemedica spokesman Dave McGuigan (below).

Wagner writes about how Gass’ treatment took shape:

“Gass traveled to Hospital Angeles in Tijuana, Mexico with the hope of recovering from a debilitating stroke. He received stem cells from Dr. Cesar Amescua based on a referral from Stemedica Cell Technologies, Inc., a San Diego company known for reportedly helping famous former athletes like hockey legend Gordie Howe make “miraculous” recoveries from strokes.”

What is the evidence for that referral that is mentioned?

The email documentation included with the article indicates that Marcie Frank of Stemedica referred Gass to Amescua (see image of part of the email below) in the form of saying, “Please contact Dr. Cesar Amescua”.

Screenshot of part of Jim Gass email with Stemedica’s Marcie Frank

There are also Jim Gass’ own recollections of his experiences and his photo/video of being injected.

What happened next?

Gass went forward with the treatment, writes Wagner, which involved two kinds of stem cells:

cesar-anescua-jim-gass

Image from KPBS and Jim Gass

“Gass said he followed Stemedica’s referral and got in touch with Dr. Amescua. He said further down the line, he was told that for $30,000, he could receive a round of treatment involving two different types of stem cells.

The first type, Gass said he was told, would be mesenchymal stem cells. He said he was informed that they would be manufactured by Stemedica, and would be injected into a vein in his arm. Stemedica said its mesenchymal stem cells are derived from adult bone marrow.

Gass said he was told that the other type of stem cell would be fetal in origin, and would be injected directly into his cerebrospinal fluid. These fetal neural stem cells, Gass recalled being told, would be procured from Russia not by Stemedica, but by a different company, Global Stem Cell Health (GSCH).”

It’s not at all clear how Gass developed a spinal tumor nor for sure which of the several stem cell treatments he got around the world over the years might have contributed to the tumor.

We are all now having to stay tuned for part 2 of Wagner’s piece, which should provide even more information and perspectives on this situation.jim-gass

Gass has cautionary words for other patients considering pursuing unproven stem cell treatments who think they may have nothing to lose:

“Gass now knows he did have a lot to lose. He said all told, he lost hundreds of thousands of dollars pursuing stem cell treatments around the world, and now he’s left with a painful tumor and significantly decreased mobility.

Gass hopes other patients considering reaching out to companies promoting unproven stem cell treatments will be more educated about the risks than he was.

He said, “Don’t do it. Look at me. You don’t want to spend the rest of your life in a wheelchair. I don’t either.”

At a big picture level of course, a broader concern is that there are hundreds of stem cell clinics in the U.S. and worldwide selling stem cell therapies that are not proven to be safe or effective. Right now they seem to have a lot of buyers willing to take the risk in the hope of some tangible benefit.

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