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Fact-check: F grade for irresponsible stem cell COVID-19 cure piece

At times there’s been seriously bad journalism covering COVID-19 itself including implications of various things being a COVID cure. Of course, media coverage of stem cell research itself sometimes ends up being a train-wreck of hype too. More recently we’ve seen irresponsible journalism also around the specific idea of stem cells for COVID-19, but sometimes a new piece really takes the cake on making a mess of things.

A case study in failed biomedical journalism: implication of COVID cure

Fox31 News in Colorado has a relatively new piece that in my view gets into this train-wreck zone: “NJ man recovers from COVID-19 thanks to stem cells from Golden lab”.

This news item is like a perfect case study, as in perfectly awful in my opinion, for a university class on science policy and ethics.

vitro biopharma, stem cells for covid 19, COVID cure
Vitro Biopharma and their stem cells for COVID-19 approach gets promotional type news coverage from Fox31, which implied a COVID cure. Screenshot of Fox31 video.

What’s so bad about the piece? Let’s do a checklist.

  • Hype? Yes.
  • No real questions asked? Yes.
  • No balance? Yes.
  • Promoting a completely unproven drug for COVID-19? Yes.
  • No mention of risks? Yes.

Fact-checking quotes from the flawed article

There are some particularly frustrating parts of the news piece.

Let’s start with the title, “NJ man recovers from COVID-19 thanks to stem cells from Golden lab”.

The headline is claiming that the stem cells definitely sparked the patient’s recovery, which could be totally wrong and in my opinion is probably most likely false. The article goes on to say this:

“We were able to get permission from the FDA for compassionate use because Pablo had failed other therapies,” said Dr. Jack Zamora, CEO of Vitro Biopharma

Three doses of a stem cell therapy (AlloRX Stem Cells) was the last best hope for Rigual. The therapy worked.”

There’s no particular reason to think that particular cellular therapy was in fact his best hope.

Also, wait, how do you know it worked?

Of course, in reality there’s no good evidence the stem cells did anything. Keep in mind that that last statement about efficacy was from the journalist, not a quote from the CEO.

The piece ends, “Vitro Biopharma is working to ensure full FDA approval so more patients can benefit when known COVID-19 treatments fail.” That seems like such an oxymoronic statement to me. The unproven stem cells will definitely benefit COVID-19 patients, when known treatments fail?

What are the odds of that?

Unfortunately, the show The Doctors covered this same one patient getting the experimental stem cells  (see video above) and there was some significant hype on the show’s segment on stem cells for COVID-19 as well. Fortunately, the last minute or so of the video is more balanced and responsible.

However, if you agree that this The Doctors segment is problematic please give it a thumbs down on YouTube.

What could go wrong due to this kind of coverage?

What might be the risks of such a hypeful, unbalanced piece? A lot.

For instance, this kind of report could encourage bad behavior by unproven stem cell clinics on the COVID front, which we’ve already seen.

It may also prompt the public to take risks.

Finally, it may encourage more hype and poor biomedical journalism.

Juror is out still on approach of stem cells for COVID-19

There is still very little evidence to back up the idea of stem cells for COVID-19.

One small study from the University of Miami reported what seemed to be indications of efficacy, but there were quite a few caveats to that study so we can’t be sure of the results. Also, Mesoblast recently got discouraging news on its stem cell COVID-19 trial.

We’ll see how the dozens of trials of cells for COVID-19 turn out and I hope I’ll have been wrong to be skeptical.

Overall, getting back to the Fox31 piece, it is one of the worst media items on stem cells I’ve seen in a long time. The Doctor’s video segment was more of a mixed bag.

(As a side note, I also have a funny confession of a sort and that is that when I first read the headline for one second I thought a golden lab (dog) was a stem cell donor here somehow, which didn’t make sense. Maybe the hazards of being a dog owner. The article header means a laboratory in Golden, CO.)

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