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A Closer Look At A San Diego Stem Cell Company’s Leadership

An excerpt from a 2003 brochure promoting Penta water is pictured.
An excerpt from a 2003 brochure promoting Penta water is pictured.

Editor's note: To read part one in this two-part series, click here

A Closer Look At A San Diego Stem Cell Company’s Leadership
A Closer Look At A San Diego Stem Cell Company’s Leadership
A Closer Look At A San Diego Stem Cell Company’s Leadership GUEST: David Wagner, science reporter, KPBS

We brought to the story of a man who went to Tijuana for expensive and unproven stem cell treatments. Speech and was referred to in misconduct or by a San Diego company called Stemedica. Is science reporter brings us a closer look at their leadership including people who previously worked for a bottled water company that faced accusations of trading on junk science. Crack open a bottle of Penta and pour into a class and it looks like pretty ordinary water because it is just plain old H2O but not that long ago they were claiming that their water was structurally superior to normal water and was proven to be absorbed by cells faster and more effectively. A San Diego lawyer followed a class action lawsuit against the makers of Penta water. A brought forward complaints of unfair business practices and false advertising. They were saying they had restructured the water that the clusters of water molecules were smaller and therefore it could be hydrated quicker into the cells. The makers defended their process. They said they were able to shrink the clusters of water using high-energy sound waves. Two chemists prepared a report about Penta for the case. A claim that the company claims were wrong and absurd. This is a worst examples of a junk science that I have personally seen. Today than Sexton is a professor at North Carolina University. Back when he was a graduate student they prepared a report analyzing what they called Penta junk science. He said water cannot be restructured in any way. We had a good chuckle over this. The makers agreed to settle the case in stopped making claims. So what this is how to do with stem cells? Yesterday we told you about Jim Gass a stroke patient. They later discovered a tumor in his spine where he said he received injections of a different fetal stem cells. He said he trusted them to point him in the right direction because their leadership was full of people with medical degrees and years of experience. But we found that three people listed online as top executives previously worked for the company that made Penta water. One of them is trying 12. -- Trent 12. The spokesman said that he was not able to comment on this. Because Stemedica has used Penta in their manufacturing process it would be inappropriate for us to speak about personal relationships with Penta. They also worked for the company that made Penta water. They also found that the credentials of Stemedica leaders does not hold up to scrutiny. We looked into the background of Trent 12 -- Nikolai Tankovich he currently serves as a -- Board of Trustees but Oxford officials say that his name did not appear in the search of their staff worker's. One officials said he never held a academic or any other position there. Jim Gass said he did not see anything about Penta water . I asked him if he had known about this history would have been more skeptical about contacting Stemedica I think so. I would've thought twice. You hopes other patients will be more educated about the risks than he was. That was David Wagner who joins us now. How did Stemedica get your attention? I first became aware of trend -- Stemedica when Gordie Howe went to Tijuana for stem cell treatments. This happened in 2014 and made a huge splash in the media especially in the sports pages. His family said that he received injections in Tijuana and his recovery was miraculous. They said within a day, he was market again. I noticed in the stories of the company that made the stem cells using this treatment was Stemedica. Later I started noticing that they were also associated with the treatment of other famous former athletes in Tijuana people like John Brodie. How old is the company? It was incorporated in 2005 and so it's been around forever a decade. At the top that is run by two brothers and in the past, they talked about founding Penta based on their family members. It was paralyzed in a car accident and Stemedica said she made quite a recovery after getting stem cell treatments in Russia. This back story is no longer featured prominently on their website but for a while it was like that company's origin story. What kind of data exist on their work? There are ongoing human clinical trials. You can go to clinical trials.gov and see that a number of the trials are being overseen by cited like UC San Diego and UC Irvine. When we asked Stemedica if they could provide results in either inside the USR outside the country, they cannot provide any published data to us. Is a typical for companies to not release this kind of data? Unfortunately it is not uncommon for clinical trials to fail to report results, but the experts I talked to for the story they were concerned about any company that is out there promoting treatments before publishing data improving the treatments to be safe and effective. What does research tell us about stem cell treatments? Experts really don't want us to write off stem cells based on what certain companies are doing. They say that treatments are on the horizon for a number of conditions and there is solid science backing the idea that some so therapies will help patients. For now those treatments are in pretty early stages and it could take years before they are approved. Work is -- what kind of work is going on here in San Diego? She is working on a potential stem cell therapy for Parkinson's disease and using the very different kind of stem cell than what was used in Jim Gass's case in Tijuana. She's actually taking cells from Parkinson's patients themselves and then reprogramming them to become a specific type of neuron that dies in the brain and partisan patients. This research is beginning to enter the testing phase of it will be a while before scientists know whether this is a treatment that could receive FDA approval, but like to say this is a promising approach and it is being funded by California's stem cell agency. You have a sense how large the stem cell tourism industry is? It is hard to say. We don't have solid numbers on how many people cross borders and pay for these treatments, but we do know that hundreds of clinics are popping up right here in the U.S. advertising unproven and expensive treatments for all kinds of conditions. Our story focuses on a man who went abroad to receive these treatments. Today in many cases patients or how to travel very far to receive treatment that cost a lot of money and are not proven to be safer or effective. Just the fact that San Diego is on the border makes it a hot spot? For certain type of company, yes. Companies that may want to point patients a treatments in Tijuana because regulations and laws in Mexico are different than they are here. You have any advice for individuals who are interested in stem cell treatments? The standard suggestion is patients should look for traditional clinical trials are happening at reputable institutions in the U.S. The standard suggestion is patients should look for traditional clinical trials are happening at reputable institutions in the U.S. Experts say they should be leery of clinical trials that may charge large sums of money to participate. This advice can be tricky because the patient that we profiled he did that. He reached out to these clinical trials and he said it was very frustrating because in every case they either do not qualify for a trial for various reasons or he was told that the trial was not recruiting patients at the moment. So given that situation in the fact that there is no other treatment available for stroke right now, I could understand why he would want to go a product and spend money on treatments that he knows may not work. He has some hope that they may do something. Thank you for bringing this story. That was David Wagner. Thank you, Allison.

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A Closer Look At A San Diego Stem Cell Company’s Leadership 1
Part 1: A stroke patient who pursued stem cell treatments abroad says he trusted San Diego-based Stemedica based on its leaders’ credentials. But those credentials don’t always hold up to scrutiny.
A Closer Look At A San Diego Stem Cell Company’s Leadership
Part 2: A stroke patient who pursued stem cell treatments abroad says he trusted San Diego-based Stemedica based on its leaders’ credentials. But those credentials don’t always hold up to scrutiny.

Jim Gass, now battling a bizarre tumor his doctors link with "stem cell tourism," says he trusted San Diego-based Stemedica to point him in the right direction for stem cell treatments. He was treated in Tijuana in 2014 based on the company’s referral.

Gass says he always had his doubts about these treatments, but he was reassured by Stemedica’s polished and professional website; the company’s leadership was full of people with medical degrees, years of experience and impressive credentials.

But KPBS has found that those credentials don’t always hold up to scrutiny, and three people currently listed online as top executives at Stemedica and its subsidiary Stemedica International previously worked for a bottled water company that faced accusations of trading on “junk science.”

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Gass contacted Stemedica Cell Technologies, Inc. with the hope that he could recover from a debilitating stroke. He followed the company’s referral to a doctor in Tijuana. There, he says he received Stemedica’s adult stem cells intravenously and fetal stem cells from another company, Global Stem Cell Health, through injections into his spine.

Gass paid a total of $60,000 for two rounds of stem cell injections in Tijuana. He says he did it on the chance they might help, knowing that no data from any human trials had been published about the safety or efficacy of these treatments. But unlike famous former athletes Gordie Howe and John Brodie — who reportedly made “miraculous” recoveries after receiving Stemedica’s cells in Tijuana — Gass got worse.

Gass also traveled to China and Argentina for stem cell treatments years before going to Mexico. But he says he began feeling pain in his back after his second round of treatment in Tijuana. His doctors later discovered a strange growth in his spine, where Gass says he received fetal stem cell injections in Tijuana. In an article recently published in the New England Journal of Medicine, Gass’s doctors write that his tumor, which is partly made up of cells from another human being, represents “an extremely serious complication of introducing proliferating stem cells into patients.”

Stemedica’s website includes detailed information about the experience and credentials of its top executives. KPBS looked into those credentials, and found that they could not always be independently verified.

Since 2012, Stemedica’s president and chief medical officer Nikolai Tankovich has claimed to have an appointment at England’s prestigious Trinity College, part of the University of Oxford. His bio on a Stemedica subsidiary’s website claims he currently serves as "a legate at Oxford University’s Center for Science and Society Board of Trustees."

However, Oxford officials tell KPBS that Tankovich’s name did not appear in a search of staff records.

“Nikolai Tankovich has never held an academic or any other position at Trinity College,” estates bursar Kevin Knott wrote in an email to KPBS.

Knott continued, “Under an agreement with the College, the Centre for Science and Society organised a number of lectures which took place at the College in the past. The Centre is not and never has been part of the College. Any association on the part of individuals with the Centre does not equate to any form of membership of the College.”

When asked about Tankovich’s Oxford appointment, Stemedica spokesman Dave McGuigan said, “If any of the credentialing that represent our executives is inaccurate, then we will correct it immediately.”

At the time this story is being published, Tankovich’s supposed affiliation with Oxford is still discussed in detail on Stemedica’s website.

Claims that didn’t hold water in court

Tankovich and two other executives currently listed on the websites of Stemedica and its subsidiary Stemedica International previously worked at a company that had to stop making claims regarding the health benefits of its bottled water, sold under the brand name Penta, following a class action lawsuit filed in 2003.

Penta’s current marketing claims have been reined in significantly. But back in the early 2000s, the makers of Penta water claimed their product was "structurally superior" to normal water. They said they were able to shrink molecular clusters of water using high-energy sound waves, and that Penta had been “proven to be absorbed by cells faster and more effectively than any other water.” At this time, Penta’s website also included testimonials from a number of athletes.

San Diego lawyer Stephen Morris led the class action lawsuit, which brought forward complaints of false advertising and unfair business practices. He says Penta’s marketing strategy was “absurd.”

“They were actually saying they had restructured the water such that the clusters of water molecules were smaller in their bottled water and therefore could be hydrated quicker into the cells,” Morris said. “It was ridiculous.”

A recently purchased bottle of Penta water is pictured, Sept. 2, 2016.
Kris Arciaga
A recently purchased bottle of Penta water is pictured, Sept. 2, 2016.

The lawsuit against the makers of Penta water did not make a splash in the media. Today, Google searches return only a few results linking people currently at Stemedica with Penta water. But court records and corporate filings show that high-ranking Stemedica employees previously worked for Bio-Hydration Research Lab, Inc, the manufacturer of Penta, a product scientists say was marketed using “junk science.”

Tankovich served on Bio-Hydration’s board of directors along with David Cheatham, currently described as Stemedica International’s business managing director. Eugene Baranov — today listed as vice president of global research on Stemedica’s website — also worked as the company’s “director of research and development,” according to an archived Penta water web page.

Court records show the makers of Penta water vigorously defending their product. In one declaration submitted during the case, Tankovich stood by his assertion that Penta was “superior to regular water in a number of ways.” The makers of Penta said scientists at UC San Diego and the Scripps Research Institute had confirmed the health benefits of their water in a “collaborative study.”

But Morris said when he called one of the UCSD scientists Penta named as a collaborator on this study, she told him she disagreed with the study’s conclusions and wanted her name removed from it. Another scientist Penta mentioned as a collaborator on this study told KPBS they did not personally verify any of Penta water’s claims. This scientist did not want to speak with KPBS on the record, out of concern over possible legal repercussions.

Other chemists at UC San Diego did look into Penta water for a report submitted during the case. They concluded the company’s claims were "not only wrong, but absurd."

“This was one of the worst examples of pseudoscience or junk science that I’ve personally seen” said Jonathan Sexton, a scientist currently at North Carolina Central University who was a graduate student during the case. He co-authored the report with his PhD advisor at the time, UCSD chemistry professor Andy Kummel.

UC San Diego researchers analyze Penta water's claims
UC San Diego's Andy Kummel and Jonathan Sexton called Penta's claims "not only wrong, but absurd."
To view PDF files, download Acrobat Reader.

Sexton said, “We had a good chuckle over this.”

Even if it were possible to molecularly restructure water, Sexton says the resulting liquid would revert to its normal state within a fraction of a second. He also says hypothetically restructured water still wouldn’t hydrate cells faster than tap water. That’s because water is actively transported into cells one molecule at a time, no matter how those molecules may be clustered.

Based on his experience looking into Penta water, Sexton says, “These are not the people I would trust with any healthcare solutions that I would be seeking.”

The makers of Penta agreed to settle the case and revise their marketing claims. Looking at Penta’s new label, Morris says, “It looks to me as though they’ve cleaned up their act on their advertising.”

KPBS reached out to the makers of Penta water for comment on this story, but has not received any response. Stemedica spokesman Dave McGuigan said, “Because Stemedica neither uses, or ever has used, Penta water or any of its derivatives in its manufacturing or product development process, it would be inappropriate for us to speak about [Tankovich’s] personal relationship with Penta.”

Gass said he never saw anything about Penta water when he was looking into the people running Stemedica. When asked if this information might have deterred him from contacting Stemedica, he said, “I think so. I’m not sure what I would’ve done, but I would’ve thought twice.”

inewsource reporter Leo Castaneda contributed to this report.