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Celltex controversy still keeping folks atwitter

Search the Twitter hash tag #Celltex and you will see just how much interest remains in the dispute between a Houston company and a U of M professor.

You know who tweets a lot? Bioethicists. I don’t know whether this is because they are so-called early adopters, prone to replying “yes but” to each others’ every utterance or more constitutionally wired to offer 140-character arguments than the average bear, but it’s true.

Don’t believe me? Search the hash tag #Celltex and you will see just how much is stuffed inside the belly of that whale that appears whenever Twitter is over capacity.

Today, there are enough small updates to add up to a slender post on the controversy that earned the Houston company, the University of Minnesota professor of bioethics who called it out and his tweeps places on the trending list.

A quick recap: Celltex — founded by David Eller and Stanley Jones, a surgeon who treated Texas Gov. Rick Perry for back pain with unapproved adult stem cells — operates the largest stem-cell bank in the United States, a Houston-area facility that opened in December. It “multiplies and banks” stem cells there, which it pays physicians to inject into patients suffering a host of maladies, who pay Celltex thousands of dollars for manipulating their abdominal fat.

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In February, U of M bioethicist Leigh Turner wrote to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration asking that it investigate the company’s activities. (The full chronology of events is worth revisiting if this is the first you’ve heard of it.)

Three weeks ago, Celltex wrote to U of M President Eric Kaler demanding he “disclaim any sponsorship” by the university of Turner’s letter, retract it, remove it from the Internet and take steps to “prevent recurrence of this type of activity” by Turner or any other member of the faculty.

The university community waited with bated breath, not least because Kaler delegated the job of replying to General Counsel Mark Rotenberg, who has something of a controversial profile in this department ever since he asked a faculty committee on academic freedom to consider whether similar speech — criticizing the university itself over a controversial drug trial — by one of Turner’s colleagues, Dr. Carl Elliot, would have a chilling effect on controversial research.

Last week, Rotenberg wrote back to Celltex [PDF], attaching a copy of the relevant Board of Regents policy.

“Faculty members at the University of Minnesota have the academic freedom, without institutional discipline or restraint, to explore all avenues of scholarship, research, and creative expression, and to speak or write on matters of public concern,” the letter stated. “Professor Leigh Turner’s February 21, 2012 letter to the FDA is fully covered by this principle of academic freedom.”

Turner himself wrote to the FDA reiterating what he believed was clear in his original communication, which was that he spoke for himself and not the U of M.

Does this mean scholars are wandering the U of M’s storied halls, high-fiving one another over the affirmation of this bedrock principle? It doesn’t sound like it, according to a hilarious interview with Turner by Tom Mischke broadcast Tuesday night on WCCO radio.

According to a heavily edited transcript of the interview posted on the blog Fear and Loathing in Bioethics, penned by one of the aforementioned tweeters, after establishing that Turner is Canadian and that his mother knows all about the mess he’s gotten himself into, Mischke gets to the heart of things:

Mischke: If these guys didn’t support you, and the U of M turned tail and ran, and left you sitting out there in a field by yourself, I wonder what Celltex could do to you. Crush you into little pieces of dust?

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Turner: David Eller (the CEO of Celltex) wound up suing this reporter and Forbes for defamation and the lawsuit lasted 11 years.  So David Eller is a multi-millionaire; he’s got a lot of resources at his disposal; he had lawyers then, and he’s got lawyers now; and he seems to have money to burn.

Mischke: Is it the case where you walk down the hallways and you kind of know who are the people who are 100 percent behind you and who are the people who are just a little skittish, and kind of off to the side, keeping one leg with your crowd and the other leg on the other side of the rail just in case they’ve got to hightail out of there?

Turner:  Umm.

Mischke: I mean, do you really feel that all your colleagues and your administrators ultimately see you as doing the right thing and really want to back you, or are some of them checking from day to day to see which way the wind is blowing on this thing?

Turner:  Yeah.  Well, I haven’t really had many conversations with colleagues about this.  That must seem strange.  This has been going on now for nearly two months.

Mischke:   Whenever you guys in the ethics department get involved in ethical things, a lot of people sort of don’t talk to you.

Turner:  Umm…