William Shatner: New celebrity pitch man for dubious anti-aging stem cell treatments?

Here we go again. (I think.) Remember my bizarre little Twitter kerfuffle with, of all celebrities that it could possibly be, William Shatner? It happened two years ago. The details are not important. What is important, for purposes of this post, is that the kerfuffle came about after Shatner, as part of Autism Awareness Month, had posted a plea to support Autism Speaks. Regular readers here who are aware of the history of Autism Speaks probably know why such a plea wouldn’t go over very well among many autistic people, and I’m sure Shatner had no idea about that when he posted his Tweet. Why should he? Not surprisingly, a lot of autistic people tried to explain to him why Autism Speaks isn’t the greatest charity to support. Most were respectful—deferential, even—but, Twitter being Twitter not all the responses remained civil, and, Twitter being Twitter, the thread turned into a free-for-all. I made the mistake of jumping in, and the rest is history. Let’s just say that eventually Shatner found posts by Jake Crosby lying about me, as well as a number of other smears posted by a wide variety of antivaxers, cancer quacks, and others who don’t like my application of Insolence, Respectful or not-so-Respectful, to their favored quackery.

Let’s just say that William Shatner didn’t impress me with his willingness to consider alternative viewpoints and valid criticism, nor did he show much evidence of self-awareness or critical thinking skills. Of course, this isn’t a surprise. Shatner has not been known, especially on Twitter, for his reflective nature or critical thinking abilities. He’s an actor, one whose portrayal of Captain James T. Kirk I enjoy immensely, but an actor. Still, before I exited, Shatner admitted openly that he had posted links to TruthWiki and Mike Adams’ lies about me in order to intimidate me into silence. Not a good look.

Neither is this:

There wasn’t much in the news about this, other than in SF and comic book sites, but what there was was fairly credulous. For example:

Star Trek star William Shatner has opted to undergo a relatively new medical treatment in an attempt to rejuvenate his body. The 88-year-old actor tweeted that he’s received restorative stem cell treatment from the company ProGenaCell using stem cells manufactured by a company called Invitrx. “Today I received restorative stem cells from my good friend Greg DiRienzo at ProGenaCell,” Shatner tweeted. “The stem cells were manufactured by Invitrx here in So Cal. My friend Dr Mathi Senapathi gave the cells to me intravenously. Is it possible to turn back the clock? I will let you know.” Stem cell treatment’s like this are fairly new. According to a New York Times report in May, there’s little evidence that such treatments are effective, but the FDA has been willing to allow companies to continue to use them for now. Shatner has apparently decided its worth a shot. Who knows? If it works and works well enough, maybe he’ll feel up to a new Star Trek series. When he spoke to him about the idea in February, the idea of resurrecting Captain Kirk for a series like Star Trek: Picard seemed out of the question.

Not surprisingly to anyone who knows me, I had to take a look at this company and see what it’s all about. When I searched for the Invitrx website, I was greeted by a popup warning:

Invitrx Therapeutics, Inc. (Invitrx) is NOT liable for the intended use of any of its products. Invitrx does not intend to define, suggest, alter or approve of any kind of “practice of medicine” performed by the administering physician(s) instead relying on the IND and/or Clinical Trial IRB to determine safe practices of use of the Cord Blood Stem Cell Product(s)(CBSC), Amniotic Fluid, Amniotic Tissue, Human Umbilical Cord Blood Plasma (hUCBP), Wharton’s Jelly, and Wharton’s Jelly (MSC). These products are for Research Use Only.

This struck me, more than anything else, as a variation of the Quack Miranda Warning, where a company selling unproven products posts a warning that its statements about those products have not been evaluated or approved by the FDA and that the product is not intended to diagnose, prevent, or treat any disease. Basically, it’s a dodge to try to keep the FDA away. In this case, Invitrx is basically saying that its products are intended for research purposes only, and if any doctor wants to give them to patients it’s not their fault. This is not an auspicious start. This is basically confirmed elsewhere, where Invitrx warns that its products “are sold only for use by properly licensed medical professionals in laboratory research, and by properly licensed medical professionals for clinical trials, and diagnostic or therapeutic uses approved by the United States Food and Drug Administration and in compliance with all other federal, state and local laws.” Translation: If a doctor uses our products outside the auspices of a clinical trial or uses it for an indication not approved by the FDA, don’t blame us. Actually, this is a bit more honest than a Quack Miranda, or it would be if the sale of Invitrx products to Dr. Senapathi to use on William Shatner didn’t suggest that Invitrx isn’t too picky about enforcing its authorized uses.

Be that as it may, Invitrx offers multiple stem cell products for sale, including a minimally manipulated human tissue allograft suspension derived from umbilical cord blood, a minimally manipulated human tissue allograft suspension derived from the Wharton’s Jelly of the umbilical cord (Wharton’s Jelly is the gelatinous, structural tissue consisting of structural proteins and components, such as collagen and hyaluronic acid), a biological acellular product derived from human amnion, and a product derived from the liquid phase of blood and is rich in various cytokines growth factors, and immune modulatory factors. (I wonder if Invitrx claims that this product “boosts the immune system.”) Not surprisingly, as many of these companies do, Initrx sells a beauty product that it calls Reluma, which is “formulated with growth factors and matrix proteins produced using Invitrx’s proprietary stem cell core technology,” because of cours it is. Of course, whether or not there is a high concentration of stem cells in any of the cellular products is an open question.

So Invitrx makes stem cell products that can be used for research but whose main use is almost certainly at various quack stem cell clinics. But who is Malathi Senepathi? He’s the president of a company called Senapathi Biologicx Medicine in Indonesia, and I couldn’t find out much else about him. I could, however, find out about ProGenaCell. The splash page of its website touts “potent regeneration of damaged cells” with its products, which include: stem cell growth factors, umbilical cord stem cells, and “integrative stem cell treatment.” Given that the first two of these products are pretty standard in the for-profit quack stem cell business, plus my proclivities when it comes to blogging, I naturally zeroed in on the last product, the “integrative stem cell treatment,” which, the company touts, “prepare the body for the reception of new cells.” Clicking on the link brings up a 404 error, which tells me the company took the page down.

Perusing the website, though, I learned that ProgenaCell is basically a chain of stem cell clinics with locations in Asia, Mexico, and Los Angeles:

The first step is to fill out the Medical Questionnaire located on this website. ProGenaCell’s Board Certified Doctors will then undertake a full evaluation and prepare a detailed treatment protocol. Once you have received this information, ProGenaCell’s team will schedule you for treatment at one of our approved treatment centers located in Chennai, India; Jakarta, Indonesia; Los Angeles, United States; and Baja California, Mexico. ProGenaCell’s approved physicians and treatment centers offer:

  • Detoxification therapies – pre and post stem cell treatments.
  • Various therapeutic applications using Progenitor Xenocells (Growth Factors) and Cord Blood Cells.
  • Diet guidelines during cell therapy.
  • Nutraceutical guidelines during cell therapy.

There it is again, “detoxification. That’s a huge red flag for even more quackery than just using stem cells for indications for which they have not been approved or demonstrated to be effective. There’s also a prominent link to Integrative Cancer Centers of America. Yes, it’s exactly what you think it is. It combines unproven and disproven treatments with standard oncology and oncological surgery. And, yes, it uses homeopathy, along with a veritable cornucopia of quackery. Not coincidentally, William Shatner’s friend Greg DiRienzo is the CEO and Founder of Integrative Cancer Centers of America; founder and current CEO of ProGenaCell; and the founder and CEO of Medici Integrative Health & Surgery Center, a bariatric surgery center in Tijuana, plus several other companies.

I don’t know if ProGenaCell’s cornucopia of quackery that it uses with its stem cell concoctions is as extensive (probably not), but “detox” is an enormous red flag.

Even if all ProGenaCell did was to use its stem cell concoctions, its scientific rigor doesn’t look too good. For instance, it claims to be able to treat autism and includes this video:

It’s a video of Luella, who’s represented as a patient with autism spectrum disorder who, apparently, has been treated with ProgenaCell stem cells and is doing well. It’s one of the most pointless advertisements I’ve ever seen for any treatment, as it doesn’t provide any substantive information. It just shows the girl, her face blurred out. The implication is that the stem cells fixed a girl with autism. Of course, there’s no good evidence that stem cells have any therapeutic effect in autism. Elsewhere, there’s a letter from Luella’s father, who took her to Tijuana for stem cell therapy. It begins:

When my 3 year-old daughter was diagnosed with ASD a year ago, my wife and I were very aggressive looking into therapy and treatment options. We initiated ABA, speech and occupationally therapy. Over the next few months we observed some improvement in her autistic behaviors. The progress was slow, but continued to investigate other options. We had conversations with some friends regarding the possibility of stem cell treatment. This new and innovative approach sounded very promising. We were frustrated with the limited availability for stem cell treatment. Through one of my wife’s family friends we found out about ProGenaCell.

He expresses skepticism, but ultimately agrees to go, later reporting:

As I stated earlier, I was extremely apprehensive about the treatment. The fact that it was taking place in Mexico was a major concern for me. Having been through this process, I have referred a couple family friends to ProGenaCell for treatment. I am pleased to write that my daughter is developing very, very well. Within a matter of weeks we began to see off the charts progress in language development, social skills acquisition and a dramatic decrease in sensory processing. Her therapists at home have described her as a “Rock Star”. We have had an exceedingly positive experience through this treatment. Dr. Schramm and Greg have been continuously available to us. They have shared in our excitement as our daughter has progressed significantly.

As I’ve discussed more times than I can remember none of this means that the ProgenaCell stem cells did anything for Luella’s autism. None of the above story is incompatible with a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder. Also note how he mentions “therapists at home.” This clearly suggests that Luella is continuing ABA, and that’s far more likely to be the reason she’s doing well than a dubious stem cell treatment. Certainly, there isn’t any good evidence that this treatment would help.

ProgenaCell also claims to be able to treat Parkinson’s disease, stroke, cerebral palsy, and traumatic brain injury, indications for which stem cell therapy has not yet been demonstrated to work. Indeed, there is even been a randomized double blind placebo controlled trial that shows that stem cells for Parkinson’s disease, even when the stem cells are injected right into the relevant area of the brain that contains the cells that make dopamine (the lack of which is responsible for the disease’s symptoms), do not relieve the neurologic symptoms of the disease. How likely is it that just injecting stem cells into the blood will work in Parkinson’s disease, knowing this result? Not very. It also doesn’t work in cerebral palsy,

But ProgenaCell, like every other dubious practitioner, has lots of testimonials and videos.

Of course, stem cells are commonly used, evidence be damned, to treat the degenerative diseases of aging. They’ve also become, among believers, a veritable cure-all, as well as a fountain of youth. Unfortunately, there is no good evidence or reason to expect that stem cells can reverse aging, although they might increase lifespan by the rather obvious method of allowing us to replace failing organs.

I could go on, but why bother. The bottom line is that ProgenaCell is, from all appearances to me, just another dubious stem cell clinic (or, more properly, chain of clinics) selling unproven stem cell therapies for indications for which stem cells have not been shown to work.

Which brings us back to William Shatner. He just turned 88. He’s a very good 88, still functional, still appearing on TV, still Tweeting, still writing books, still doing his charity work, but he’s still 88, which is very old. I don’t know what sort of chronic health conditions he might have (I don’t pay enough attention to him to know, even if he has discussed them in interviews or on Twitter), but at his age it’s highly likely that he has at least a couple. So it’s very understandable that he might be tempted to try to “turn back the clock.” The problem is that it won’t work.

I also don’t know how much—or if—William Shatner paid for his stem cell therapy. I say “if” because I know of at least one celebrity, Gordie Howe, who was given stem cell therapy basically so that his family would promote the company, Stemedica, that treated him for free. I note that Shatner’s Tweet is tagged as an ad, which makes me wonder if the same sort of dynamic is going on here. In the interest of transparency, Mr. Shatner should disclose whether he paid regular price for ProgenaCell treatment or not, and if he received any compensation for posting that Tweet. My guess is that he did.

Not that any of this will change Shatner’s fans’ attitudes. The responses to his Tweet above were overwhelmingly positive and credulous, complete with photos of William Shatner when he was young with comments added about how that’s what he’ll look like when he wakes up, along with more than a few expressing a desire to be like Shatner and get some stem cells. Few indeed were any responses showing an iota of skepticism. Of course, that was the point. This is an ad, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it isn’t long until William Shatner is the celebrity spokesperson for ProgenaCell or other stem cell clinic. It’s a shame, but I expect to see more of this as