IMAGE CREDIT: WONDERY.
Earlier this year I was obsessed with the story of Elizabeth Holmes, the entrepreneur who built a medical device company valued at $4.5 billion. Her company sought to revolutionize the blood test industry by making devices which could run numerous blood tests on only a drop of blood. The problem? Her devices did not work, and the data she presented to investors were fraudulent. She knowingly marketed a severely flawed product that could not produce accurate nor reproducible results. And, thanks to the marvelous reporting of John Carreyou, her fraud was ousted. Holmes's company crumbled, and in the matter of months her net worth plummeted from $4.5 billion to $0. Three personality traits of Elizabeth struck me as the root of her malice:
To reiterate, I was obsessed with this story. I listened to the podcast (The Dropout), read the book (Bad Blood by John Carreyou), and watched the HBO documentary (The Inventor). And of course, I’ll be watching the new Hulu series, The Dropout, starring Kate McKinnon when it airs.
This past week I had the pleasure of learning about another biotechnology injustice by listening to Wondery’s podcast, Bad Batch. I was thrilled to learn that Laura Beil had returned for a second podcast after her success with Wondery’s Dr. Death (unequivocally my favorite podcast of all time). Bad Batch begins with the investigation of three patients who receive stem cell treatments only to be hospitalized in the days following the treatment. The patients complained of fevers, vomiting, spasms, and immobility to name a few symptoms. And from this event, Laura Beil begins an investigation that goes on to question the validity of the stem cell industry.
****Spoilers ahead…if I’ve sold you on Bad Batch, go and listen.****
The three hospitalized patients were injected with umbilical cord stem cells contaminated with E. coli. The cells were manufactured by a hurried start-up, Genetech, and distributed by Liveyon. Liveyon scrambled to save its image from the incident. The company blamed the doctors, stating that their product was free of contamination at the time of distribution. “We’re a victim as much as the patients who were infected.” Said the CEO of Liveyon, John Kosolcharoen1.
As Laura Beil digs on, we find Kosolcharoen has a shady business reputation. Actually, he's pretty much a scum bag. When he started Liveyon he had just been indicted for receiving illegal kickbacks for a $15,000/tube pain cream. But start another medical venture he did, after all, he just wants to help people…
As you may have guessed, the contaminated stem cells were not an isolated event. A doctor in Maine, John Herzog, tested the product on himself and almost immediately experienced severe pain. He went to the ER and discovered that he was infected with E.coli and an Enterobacter. He agreed to have a vial of stem cells he had purchased from Liveyon tested. The results? No detectable live stem cells were found in the vial. (Cue gasp and jaw drop).
Even after the incident in Texas with the three injured patients, Liveyon thrived. They marketed their product in “educational” seminars. Where salespeople made ridiculous claims that stem cells were a cure-all for Parkinson’s, arthritis, back pain, and even autism. That’s right, an asshole salesman apocryphally claimed that an autistic child who could not show affection was able to hug his mother after being treated with Liveyon’s stem cells. (At which point I was hitting my steering wheel and yelling, “fuck-ing ass-hole”).
By the end of the podcast Liveyon is still a success. Although it seems that Kosolcharoen is aware that the US Food and Drug Administration has a target on him. So… he is expanding overseas.
Throughout the podcast, I could not help but draw parallels between Kosolcharoen and Elizabeth Holmes. Similar to Holmes, Kosolcharoen was proud, impatient and lacked education in science. The growth of his company was not for the advancement of medicine and the well-being of others, but for the swelling of his own hubris and financial advancement. He refused to wait for proper research of their product before marketing and selling to the public. And, Kosolcharoen inherently did not understand the science of the stem cells he was selling. He is educated mostly by Google and Wikipedia.
So, let’s take a step back for some introspection, it isn’t easy, and it is certainly not my favorite thing to do. But as scientists it is necessary. Search yourself for signs of pride, impatience, and deficiency of knowledge within your research. I know I have been guilty of all three at one point during my Ph.D. In the future, I will improve on these issues to make sure that I am performing ethical, careful, and unbiased work.
I’d like to thank Laura Beil and Wondery for this marvelous piece of medical journalism. Since the podcast, Liveyon has shut down sales of their stem cells.
Still interested? even though you read the spoilers? Listen to Clean Batch. If you like this genre, I full heartedly recommend Dr. Death as well.