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Startling — and troubling — developments in the Celltex bioethics scandal

This bizarre, tangled and fast-moving story has taken some surprising turns this week.

Unlicensed stem cell therapies are at the heart of a bioethics scandal involving a Houston startup.

Last week, I wrote about the medical ethics storm surrounding bioethicist Glenn McGee, who took a job with Celltex Therapeutics in Houston, a controversial new company that is apparently marketing unlicensed stem cells therapies.

The most famous patient associated with Celltex is Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who reportedly received stem cell injections for back pain from a doctor associated with the company and who has supported legislation that would make it easier for companies like Celltex to operate in his state.

Celltex’s owner, David Eller, a former Dupont executive and chairman of the Board of Regents at Texas A&M University, has been a major donor to Perry’s political campaigns.

Dr. Carl Elliott

ahc.umn.eduDr. Carl Elliott

As I noted last week, two University of Minnesota bioethicists, Leigh Turner and Dr. Carl Elliott, have been among the most vocal critics of both McGee and Celltex.

Well, this week, this bizarre, tangled and fast-moving story has taken some surprising — and troubling — turns.

On Wednesday, the journal Nature reported more details about how Celltex “is involved in the clinical use of [stem] cells on US soil, which the FDA has viewed as illegal in other cases.” Indeed, reporter David Cyranoski notes that one Celltex patient has been blogging about the stem-cell treatments she has been receiving from the company for multiple sclerosis. Cyranoski was unable to reach that patient, but he did speak with Dr. Jamshid Lofti, the Houston neurologist who injected the cells into the woman. He acknowledged that the injections had been made — and that both he and Celltex had charged the patient for them. (Lofti said he gets $500 per injection and that Celltex charges the patient $7,000 per 200 million cells.)

As Cyranski notes, other stem-cell scientists say such activities by Celltex are highly questionable:

Because we know so little about mesenchymal stem cells and whether they are indeed effective for treating any condition, I’d be very wary of how they are being infused into patients, and certainly concerned if practitioners are charging patients for medical procedures that haven’t been proven to work and could in fact be harmful,” says George Daley, director of the Stem Cell Transplantation Program at Harvard Medical School in Boston, Massachusetts, who helped the ISSCR to draft its guidelines. In the opinion of Arnold Kriegstein, director of the Eli and Edythe Broad Center of Regeneration Medicine and Stem Cell Research at the University of California, San Francisco, “the very nature of Celltex’s business plan, which involves charging patients considerable fees for so-called treatments for diseases and disorders for which there is no good clinical evidence of efficacy, crosses an ethical line.

A resignation and a retraction

On Thursday, McGee announced — on Twitter — that he has quit Celltex. “Enough,” he wrote. “I resigned from #Celltex Therapeutics on & effective 2/28/2012. I am preparing timely, lengthy, pointed comments on the whole matter.”

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But before McGee’s resignation, late Wednesday night, the online magazine Slate made the startling move of retracting a commentary Carl Elliott had written Feb. 17 on the McGee/Celltex controversy. David Plotz, Slate’s editor, published this brief explanation about why the article was pulled: “Because of shortcomings in the editorial process, the article did not meet Slate’s standards for verification and fairness and should not have been published. We withdraw the article and apologize to Dr. Glenn McGee.”

He did not mention that Slate had received a letter from lawyers representing McGee that included this statement: “[W]e will file appropriate papers if the article is not formally retracted by close of business Tuesday, February 28, 2012.”

“I spent two hours on the phone trying to persuade them not to give in to a bully, but it did no good,” Elliott told William Heisel, a former investigative reporter for the Los Angeles Times and the current communications officers at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation in Seattle. “I think one of the reasons that Slate could be bullied so easily is that they didn’t know enough about stem cell tourism or bioethics or McGee’s history to know how much of his threat was bluster and how much had a basis in fact.”

‘An incredibly bad precedent’

Elliott has written a detailed, point-by-point rebuttal [PDF] of the charges that Celltex made regarding his Slate article. He also wrote more broadly about the incident Thursday in his weekly online column for the Chronicle of Higher Education.

As Heisel notes, Slate’s action sets “an incredibly bad precedent.”

It’s worth noting that McGee is, by any definition, a public figure and would have to prove actual malice to win a libel suit, a very high bar that is rarely achieved.

I have received a handful of retraction demands over the years. Never has a newspaper or website where I worked looked at a letter like the one Slate received and pulled the piece. I have had to write clarifications and corrections over the years. That’s part of the process. But when an outlet as respected as Slate caves in to pressure from a politically connected company it will undoubtedly make other writers pull back when considering a commentary on or investigation of a difficult subject — especially freelance writers who could be left to hang while the lawyers gather.

Stay tuned. This story is just gathering steam.