Thursday, June 23, 2022

#2547: Mark Berman

Stem cell quackery is big business – despite some efforts by the FDA to crack down on such quackery – and Mark Berman has managed to become something of a major player in the promotion and commodification of dubious stem cell treatments. As opposed to many promoters of such treatments, Berman is in fact an MD – a plastic surgeon based in Beverly Hills, in fact – and together with Dr. Elliot Lander, a urologist, he runs the website Cell Surgical Network, which works as a franchise for hundreds of dubious stem cell clinics in the US: For some $30,000, Berman’s company will train doctors to extract a patient’s fat, prepare it with his special centrifuge, and then inject it back into patients.


At least the website seems to be careful not to promise that such stem cell injections can cure or treat the diseases they strongly suggest they can cure or treat, including Parkinson’s, Lou Gehrig’s disease, congestive heart failure, lung disease, glaucoma, and muscular dystrophy – and Berman at least claims to make it clear to patients that the work is investigative and not FDA-approved. He’s also got some prominent, typical Quack Miranda warnings. After all, the patients who come to these clinics are often desperate enough to wish to go ahead anyways. Berman even (at least sometimes) admits that the therapies in question are not backed by evidence; instead, researchers are “currently studying” said therapies. But of course.


Berman has acknowledged that he has no published studies to back up his treatment, but nevertheless claims that he’s certain it works and is safe. As proof to back up his hubris, he has anecdotes. Meanwhile, dubious stem cell practitioners are of course performing what they themselves call “experiments”, though usually without clear protocols and without any sort of IRB approval. Apparently, since they charge their “subjects” directly for treatment, they can call it  patient-funded research” and then ethical guidelines apparently don’t apply. (In fact, at least one of Berman’s articles is approved by something called the “International Cell Surgical Society IRB”, a very unusual body most striking for the number of typos and unintelligible nonsense in their guidelines.)


As a lot of promoters of questionable treatments, Berman employs the shill gambit to dismiss critics. As Berman sees it, academics criticize him because they want to profit themselves by patenting stem cells and fear competition – especially competition in the form of revolutionary technologies that are shinier than their [the academics] own incremental research. Berman doesn’t seem to like incremental research; results in the long term can, after all, not easily be monetized now. There is a lot of projection going on in his criticism of actual researchers, it seems. The FDA, meanwhile, is, according to Berman, just a front for Big Pharma. Berman has had some trouble with the FDA (details here and here)


Meanwhile, scientists who are actually doing the research in the field point out that what Berman suggests is impossible: adult stem cells taken from fat (Berman’s technique) cannot replace cells in the eye, target injured areas of the brain or heal the immune system, contrary to what Berman suggests. In response, Berman asksWhy would I be doing this unless it was incredibly successful? The answer to that one should be blindingly obvious. Berman’s procedures cost around $9000 – and then there is the abovementioned $30,000 fee to join their network.


Diagnosis: A hugely influential figure who preys on vulnerable groups of people with unproven and unsupported crackpottery. He claims its his moral duty, but apparently struggles to distinguish moral duty from greed and self-interest. Fortunately, the FDA has taken some notice, but we’re not very optimistic that it’ll stick.


Hat-tip: San Francisco Chronicle

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