Tampa stem cell clinic is long on promises, not evidence

Posted: February 1, 2015 at 7:40 am

TAMPA Dr. Burton Feinerman has spent more than a decade using stem cell therapies that are banned in the United States, sending desperate families to Peru seeking treatments for their babies' terminal conditions like Tay-Sachs disease.

The therapies are costly and unproven, and no insurer will cover them. But there is no law against a U.S. doctor recommending them, as long as they aren't performed here.

Now the 85-year-old pediatrician is focusing on a stem cell therapy he can perform in Tampa, for seniors with such incurable lung conditions as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD.

Feinerman, medical director of the Tampa-based Lung Institute, says lung patients tend to get the most benefit from stem cell therapies. And he can treat them in the United States because he is re-infusing patients with their own stem cells, a legal process under certain circumstances.

But it's not approved as a lung disease therapy in this country. Neither the American Lung Association nor the International Society for Stem Cell Research have endorsed it. Medicare won't cover it.

So Feinerman's patients must pay cash between $7,500 and $12,000 for a three-day treatment, plus $4,500 for additional "boosters'' of cells extracted from their blood or abdominal fat.

The Lung Institute has produced a slick website and an advertising campaign, and it puts on seminars at which prospects can hear the testimonials of satisfied patients.

But there are no clinical data showing stem cell therapies benefit patients with lung disease, said Dr. Daniel Weiss, a professor at the University of Vermont College of Medicine and a leading lung disease researcher. Further, studies of mice suggest that if the therapies work, it likely would help only acute lung conditions like respiratory distress syndrome, not chronic conditions like COPD.

"I do not recommend any type of cell therapy (for lung disease) at this point," Weiss said.

Feinerman insists the doubters are wrong. "Just go to Google," he told a Times reporter who asked him for clinical research to back his claims. Lung Institute employees later provided citations for three journal articles, but none showed the treatments worked. In fact, Weiss wrote two of the articles.

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Tampa stem cell clinic is long on promises, not evidence

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