Transplanting Autoimmune Research


What’s the difference between testing a typical small molecule drug, and testing a novel cell therapy strategy? And where might the latter raise ethical challenges that the former doesn’t? These questions are extensively discussed in my book, and given human drama in a recent story by Jennifer Couzin-Frankel in the Feb 12, 2010 issue of Science (“Replacing an Immune System Gone Haywire“).

Couzin-Frankel describes the numerous difficulties that researchers have faced in attempting to validate autologous bone marrow transplantation for the treatment of (often nonlethal but highly debilitating) autoimmune disorders like type 1 diabetes, Crohn’s disease, and multiple sclerosis. The idea of this procedure is to “reset” the immune system by purging patients of their bone marrow cells, and then returning healthy bone marrow to them. The approach has shown some promise for certain autoimmune disorders. However, response is highly variable and unpredictable, and validating and applying bone marrow transplantation for autoimmune disorders is beset by numerous ethical and logistical difficulties.

A major one is the risk-benefit balance: bone marrow transplantation requires exposing patients to the dangers of the transplantation procedure (6.6% mortality in one report of lupus patients). And yet, the procedures appear to work better in patients whose disease is not yet advanced. Testing the procedure therefore requires recruiting more or less healthy, at risk patients (sometimes children) into studies that expose them to serious risk of mortality. Clinicians understandably balk at referring their patients to such studies, making recruitment very difficult.

A second challenge is funding: many of these approaches involve using the patient’s own bone marrow cells. There is nothing to patent– and hence, little commercial interest in bone marrow transplantation for autoimmune disorders. This deprives this promising line of research needed resources.

And all this creates the perfect storm for a series of ethical challenges not directly addressed in this article (but covered in my book and articles): the siting of such studies in low and middle-income settings. Prohibitive costs, plus extreme difficulty recruiting patients who are otherwise eligible for somewhat effective and extremely expensive monoclonal antibody therapies, makes the siting of such trials in economically disadvantaged settings very attractive. This gives rise to what I have elsewhere called “expedient” justification for recruitment. Not surprisingly, then, one of the first trials of the procedure was performed in Brazil, and the article closes by mentioning that ongoing trials involving high-income country researchers are recruiting from São Paulo, Prague, China, and Argentina. This is good news if people in those settings have a reasonable prospect of having widespread and affordable access to bone marrow transplantation once it becomes validated. But it is troubling indeed if people in these countries will be bearing considerable burdens for the sake of knowledge benefits that will primarily (or most expeditiously) accrue to patients in high-income settings. (photo credit: Wellcome Images, Compact Bone, 2009)


    title = {Transplanting Autoimmune Research},
    journal = {STREAM research},
    author = {Jonathan Kimmelman},
    address = {Montreal, Canada},
    date = 2010,
    month = feb,
    day = 26,
    url = {}


Jonathan Kimmelman. "Transplanting Autoimmune Research" Web blog post. STREAM research. 26 Feb 2010. Web. 24 Oct 2020. <>


Jonathan Kimmelman. (2010, Feb 26). Transplanting Autoimmune Research [Web log post]. Retrieved from

Expectation is a Vascular Condition: Thoughts on Media Coverage of "Liberation Procedures" for Multiple Sclerosis


Disclaimer to all readers: I am not expert in multiple sclerosis. I am not intimately familiar with recent research findings on a novel surgical treatment (“liberation procedure”) for multiple sclerosis that have received wide coverage in the Canadian media.

Now here are my “claimers:” recent media accounts of this novel approach border on the irresponsible, and point to serious problems with the way many media outlets cover translational clinical research. My second “claimer” is that such media coverage has important consequences for patients and the research community.

Finally, a point of clarification: my comments below concern the quality and consequences of media coverage, not the merits of the medical procedure discussed.

Here is the background: on November 20, the Globe and Mail ran a feature by veteran reporters André Picard and Avis Favaro titled “Researcher’s labor of love leads to MS breakthrough.” The story described a novel theory of an Italian researcher, Paolo Zamboni, that MS “is not, as widely believed, an autoimmune condition, but a vascular disease. More radically still, [an] experimental surgery offers hope that MS… can be cured and even largely prevented.” Said Dr. Zamboni, “I am confident that this could be a revolution for the research and diagnosis of multiple sclerosis.” The news story then describes an Italian study that performed the surgical procedure in 65 patients; the patients saw their disease virtually eradicated.

Like practically every other news article of this species, the reporters do two things. First, they truck out a few patients to proclaim the miracle cure (said one: “I don’t remember what it’s like to have MS”). Second, to establish credibility, the reporters throw in the perfunctory killjoy comments of a few scientists: “skeptics warn the evidence is too scant and speculative.”

As observed on the excellent NPR program On the Media, media coverage of medical research and breakthroughsoverflow with optimism and excitement, offering hope for millions.” According to long-time media analyst Gary Schwitzer, “What they don’t overflow with is accuracy, context and journalistic responsibility.” (Schwitzer, by the way, runs an excellent blog on health news coverage).

Here are some concerns I had about the Globe and Mail story:

• the story reports on clinical research findings. The story did not say, however, that the results have not been published and subjected to peer review.

• the story did not say whether the studies were well-designed: was there a control or placebo arm, for example? the story did not mention that placebo responses can be especially high in the setting of surgical interventions. Nor did it mention that placebo responses are often high in the context of remitting diseases like MS.

• the story wrapped logical fallacies within emotive proclamations. For example, what, precisely, could it possibly mean to say “I am confident this could be a revolution…”?

• the story was not linked in any way to any particular event. Usually reports like this follow from major scientific publications, or presentations at medical conferences. This story, however, is “free floating”- which makes it much more difficult to contextualize (why is it being reported now? how well have the findings been vetted? how did the researchers capture the attention of journalists?).

• the story contains statements that are deeply suspicious. One example is that Zamboni claims MS is not an autoimmune condition. Here is the very first line in the abstract of Professor Zamboni’s most recent publication: “Multiple sclerosis is primarily an autoimmune disorder of unknown origin.”

• the story did not address the correlation and causation problem. The story (and Zamboni) claim that vascular malformations cause MS symptoms, because the researcher discovered that many MS patients have “malformed or blocked” veins draining the brain. But an alternative explanation would be that malformations or blockages are themselves caused by MS- that they are symptomatic rather than causal. Any news coverage of correlation should always address the issue of cause.

And the consequences? Do a google search yourself on the procedure (CCVSI) to find out how much chatter there is among expectant patients, who (judging from discussions) are wondering whether they can travel to Italy to receive the “treatment.” And today, the Globe and Mail reports that the MS Society of Canada- portrayed as sourpuss nabobs of negativism in the previous article- will now fund CCVSI “with significant research dollars” in response to “the overwhelming public response to the media stories.”

Surely, more research, more trials, more basic science is needed. If indeed this approach is a promising as reported, it should be subject to rigorous clinical testing. But can anyone seriously argue that media coverage of this low quality should set the research agenda and decide how scarce research resources are allocated? (photo credit: xbloodsin, sepulcrum, 2008)


    title = {Expectation is a Vascular Condition: Thoughts on Media Coverage of "Liberation Procedures" for Multiple Sclerosis},
    journal = {STREAM research},
    author = {Jonathan Kimmelman},
    address = {Montreal, Canada},
    date = 2009,
    month = nov,
    day = 24,
    url = {}


Jonathan Kimmelman. "Expectation is a Vascular Condition: Thoughts on Media Coverage of "Liberation Procedures" for Multiple Sclerosis" Web blog post. STREAM research. 24 Nov 2009. Web. 24 Oct 2020. <>


Jonathan Kimmelman. (2009, Nov 24). Expectation is a Vascular Condition: Thoughts on Media Coverage of "Liberation Procedures" for Multiple Sclerosis [Web log post]. Retrieved from


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