A Closer Look At A San Diego Stem Cell Company’s Leadership
Editor's note: To read part one in this two-part series, click here
Wednesday, September 21, 2016
A Closer Look At A San Diego Stem Cell Company’s Leadership
David Wagner, science reporter, KPBS
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.
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.”
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.”
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."
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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.
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