Shady stem cell doctor, forced to close clinic after child’s death, is back in business: From his emails to his former patients, it’s clear that he doesn’t recognize that treating desperately ill patients with unproven stem-cell therapies is just downright wrong.
In fact, Dr. Cornelis Kleinbloesem, chief executive officer and founder of two notorious stem cell clinics, even thinks of himself as a crusading pioneer for stem cell therapy. This, despite the fact that his clinics are still embroiled in controversy over a series of deaths and serious mishaps linked to therapies conducted at their premises and under his watch.
According to an investigative report by The Telegraph’s Robert Mendick, now that Dr. Kleinbloesem has opened a new clinic, he even likens himself to Steve Jobs, the iconic founder of Apple who, in the 1980s, was forced to leave the company he had founded, only to return later in triumph.
It was the unyielding reportage of newsman Mendick that forced the closure of Dr. Kleinbloesem’s first clinic in Germany in May 2011 — eight months after an 18-month-old baby from Italy had died from a procedure done there, involving injections of stem cells into the brain. A 10-year-old boy from Azerbaijan almost died from the same procedure also done previously at that clinic.
As part of its investigation, The Telegraph had secretly filmed a doctor at the clinic telling an undercover reporter — suffering from multiple sclerosis and confined to a wheelchair — that he could walk again if he paid for treatment.
Before it was closed down, that clinic — named XCell-Center — had treated hundreds of British patients. It had also treated thousands of people from all over the world burdened by debilitating and disabling diseases, many of which have no cure, The Telegraph reported in an exclusive series of articles beginning in mid 2010.
Because of the considerable suffering caused by these diseases — Parkinson’s, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, spinal cord injuries, burns, heart ailments, diabetes and arthritis — patients are rendered vulnerable. And XCell-Center stands accused of gleefully preying on thousands of such vulnerable patients, who travelled to its premises in Dusseldorf, Germany and forked-out tens of thousands of dollars for stem cell treatments that weren’t approved by health authorities or even clinically proven effective or even safe.
In his most recent report published on April 8, journalist Mendick warns that the Dutch doctor made a comeback, months after XCell-Center — which was once Europe’s largest stem cell clinic — was shut down. Now he’s back in business, having set up a new clinic in Beirut, Lebanon in partnership with a licensed British laboratory.
The new clinic’s name is Cells4health, and it’s offering brain surgery for £23,000 (around US$30,000) and spinal cord operations for £32,000 (around US$42,000) — as well as a host of expensive but unproven stem cell treatments for various ailments.
Stem cell crusader or con artist?
What’s more, in emails sent to former patients to lobby them to support him — sent shortly after The Telegraph again came out with two new April 8 investigative reports — Dr. Kleinbloesem plays the victim, telling patients “Our work which has all our spirit and was our life was ruined by false accusations.”
Claiming that the accusations against him were backed by the medical establishment’s “resistance” to stem cell treatments for “economic reasons,” he says: “Their lobby is very strong, making it almost impossible to provide stem cell therapy in United States and Europe.”
“This, however, has not withheld us to look for alternatives around the globe. Today we are proud to announce that we have established a stem cell treatment centre in Lebanon, close to Beirut,” the Dutch doctor announces brazenly. The email also highlights a deal with “our partner laboratory in the (United Kingdom) in London.” Then he goes on to say he hopes to see at least some of his previous patients travel to Lebanon for follow-up treatments.
Dr. Kleinbloesem tells patients, “We are also passionate for the adult stem cell therapy and we love this work to be able to help many patients around the globe, who are desperate for this breakthrough treatment.”
Circumventing stem cell regulations
The new Telegraph reports detail how Dr. Kleinbloesem is able to circumvent Europe’s increasingly stringent regulations on stem cells and other biologics.
A European Union regulation passed in 2007 defines stem cell transplantation as a medicine — which means that before regulatory authorities approve such therapies for use by the public; these have to be shown to be safe and effective in rigorous clinical trials.
But three years ago, the Dutch doctor was able to thrive in Germany due to a legal loophole. XCell-Center, it seems, had previous permission from authorities to practice for a transitional period because it was already operating when the law banning the commercial exploitation of unproven stem cell treatments came into force in 2009.
In its heyday in 2008 to 2010, the XCell clinic treated hundreds of patients a year in what The Telegraph described as “state-of-the art facilities in Dusseldorf, occupying two floors of a general hospital on the outskirts of the city overlooking the River Rhine.”
“The clinic used modern equipment and claimed great success for its treatments although it was always careful not to offer guarantees of cures to patients,” Mendick said in a 2011 report. “The treatment involved taking bone marrow from patients, harvesting stem cells from the bone marrow and then reinjecting those stem cells into other parts of the body.”
After the Telegraph’s undercover investigation, German authorities decided to close the legal loophole immediately — and while the law remains unchanged, authorities had decided to re-interpret it abruptly. This forced the clinic’s closure.
In a posting on its website in May 2011, XCell said: “Due to a new development in German law, stem cell therapy is currently not possible to perform at the XCell-Center. Regretfully for this reason, we must cancel your appointment until further notice. We will notify you for further updates about the matter.”
But now its CEO and founder has been able to relocate his business to Lebanon — and has even entered into a partnership with the British firm, Precious Cells International, which is licensed by the Human Tissue Authority, the U.K. watchdog. Precious Cells processes patients’ stem cells for Dr. Kleinbloesem new company in Lebanon.
How can this happen? Telegraph’s Mendick explains that while Dr. Kleinbloesem is prevented from charging for unproven — and possibly dangerous — stem-cell treatments in Europe, the law doesn’t prevent him from using a UK-licensed laboratory to process the stem cells.
At the same time, Precious Cells isn’t doing anything illegal — it’s not involved in treating any of the patients, which is illegal in Britain. But there’s nothing to stop it from facilitating Cells4health’s practices.
“The case exposes a loophole in British and international law on unproven medical treatments,” Mendick points out.
At the new Lebanon-based Cells4health clinic, doctors remove bone marrow from patients. Then, this is sent to Precious Cells’ lab located in the Brunel University campus, in Uxbridge, west London, where they are processed.
At Precious Cells’ lab, the stem cells are extracted from the bone marrow and when this is done, the stem cells are flown back Lebanon, where they are injected into patients with incurable illnesses.
“We can have the stem cells back there (in Beirut) within 36 hours,” explains Dr. Husein Salem, a respected British scientist who set up the stem cell company that employs about 45 people worldwide and is licensed to extract and bank stem cells by the U.K.’s Human Tissue Authority.
Dr. Salem tells Mendick that his company processes the stem cells of about five patients a week from the Cells4health clinic. He says he does it because he has absolute faith in Cells4health. Having visited the clinic in Beirut, he says he is “very confident this is the one I would recommend”.
After the interview, Dr. Salem even telephoned The Telegraph to express concern. “I have been warned by others in that field not to do business with him (Dr Kleinbloesem) because he will bring companies down,” he said. “But I believe in stem cells and their value. They can benefit people who have no options,” he maintains.
“I was convinced (by Dr. Kleinbloesem) at the time when I went out. That was at the end of December. I have only just now got involved and I have done my due diligence. If we felt it isn’t right we would end our contract. It is something I wanted to get clear,” he told the newspaper.
Using the same techniques
But apart from its name, Cells4health isn’t any different from its predecessor, the XCell-Center. It continues to offer stem cell treatments for steep fees of between £10,000 (US$13,000) and £40,000 (US$52,000). It continues to take advantage of vulnerable patients, desperate to cure heart disease, Parkinson’s, autism and cerebral palsy — and willing to pay huge sums for untested treatments. But it doesn’t make any effort to ensure that its treatments are safe: none of the treatments it offers are part of clinical trials in Lebanon or in any other country.
The Telegraph reports that its website is “slickly designed, alluringly upbeat and carefully phrased.”
Its first statement, the news site admits, is medically true: “Despite the huge advances which have been made recently, there is no guarantee for the success of stem cell therapy.” But The Telegraph points out, the next sentence is more concerning: “Nevertheless, every week we see this new ‘medicine’ helping a lot of people and improving the quality of life of many patients.”
Did it also run off with patients’ money?
What’s more, Dr. Kleinbloesem appears to have swindled past clients and patients. His old company — XCell is in debt with a number of suppliers and even patients, but the doctor has not said anything about paying back these debts.
Previously, The XCell clinic used BioVault — the UK’s largest human tissue bank — to process its stem cells, but after it filed for bankruptcy, it hasn’t paid back money that it owes this company, The Telegraph reports.
Melvyn Danvers, who runs Danvers International, a British company specializing in transportation for the medical and science industries, also says XCell owed him about £60,000.
It’s not known how many hundreds — or thousands — of patients have paid deposits to XCell and have not retrieved their money. On the XCell Facebook page, one Australian patient posted: “Could you please tell me the approximate waiting list after sending the deposit. We sent the deposit more than two weeks ago and have not heard back even after emailing. We have also called the clinic and left messages for our contact to get back to us to no avail. We are getting a little worried.”
In an interview with The Telegraph Dr. Douglas Sipp says: “The profit margins on spurious stem cell treatments seem to be addictive.” Dr. Sipp is a British specialist on scientific ethics who has spoken out on the problems caused by private stem cell clinics.
“Nothing seems to have changed at Dr Kleinbloesem’s renamed and relocated centre — patients should stay well away,” he warns.