Tom Mischke interviewed Leigh Turner about the Celltex scandal Tuesday night on WCCO. You can listen to the highly entertaining interview here. (And if you need to brush up on the background to this story, have a look at this article, or this one.) Here are some heavily edited excerpts from the interview.
Mischke: Celltex says to the University of Minnesota: “Distance yourself from this man! Distance yourself from him, so that we can get him in our sights and him only. We don’t want to deal with you, and your lawyers and your money. Let’s take on this little man by himself and squash him.” This is what movies are made of. These are glorious tales of modern times. We love them, or at least I do. I don’t know if Leigh Turner does. Welcome Leigh. How are you?
Turner: I’m well, thanks. How are you?
Mischke: I’m good. What a mess you’ve gotten yourself into. Does your mom know about it?
Turner: Yes, she does know. She’s been following it.
Mischke: Well, it’s been entertaining as hell from my end.
Did you write this letter as an American citizen, or as a bioethics professor, or what?
Turner: Well, I’m not an American citizen. I’m Canadian.
Mischke: Well, you should have squared with us on that right at the beginning and we’d have gotten someone else.
Let me read something that your colleague Carl Elliott wrote. Now, this Charles L. Bosk, and his letter (to the FDA). Did that help you?
Turner: I think it did. Professor Bosk was the first, but a number of other individuals also sent letters to the FDA.
Mischke: Yeah, the “I am Spartacus” moment. It’s glorious. How many Spartacuses are out there right now?
Turner: I think it’s up to ten now.
Mischke: You’ve got to feel good about that. When the numbers started to grow, didn’t Spartacus get a little tear at that point? Didn’t Kirk Douglas get a little tear?
Turner: Yeah, he was a little teary-eyed. It was an emotional moment for him.
Mischke: So how are you feeling? How are you feeling about all this?
Turner: When I wrote the letter to the FDA I never imagined people stepping up like that, and so it was a very touching moment. It was an impressive thing to see. I found it quite powerful.
Mischke: If these guys didn’t support you, and the U of M turned tail and ran, and left you sitting out there in a field by yourself, I wonder what Celltex could do to you. Crush you into little pieces of dust?
Turner: David Eller (the CEO of Celltex) wound up suing this reporter and Forbes for defamation and the lawsuit lasted 11 years. So David Eller is a multi-millionaire; he’s got a lot of resources at his disposal; he had lawyers then, and he’s got lawyers now; and he seems to have money to burn.
Mischke: Is it the case where you walk down the hallways and you kind of know who are the people who are 100% behind you and who are the people who are just a little skittish, and kind of off to the side, keeping one leg with your crowd and the other leg on the other side of the rail just in case they’ve got to hightail out of there?
Mischke: I mean, do you really feel that all your colleagues and your administrators ultimately see you as doing the right thing and really want to back you, or are some of them checking from day to day to see which way the wind is blowing on this thing?
Turner: Yeah. Well, I haven’t really had many conversations with colleagues about this. That must seem strange. This has been going on now for nearly two months.
Mischke: I think that’s really bizarre. Tell me if this is true. Whenever you guys in the ethics department get involved in ethical things, a lot of people sort of don’t talk to you.
Mischke: I get the sense you guys are often on your own over there. I mean in terms of the big medical community over there. This ethics thing just tends to muck things up for other people.
Turner: There’s an element of truth in what you’re saying. Some people feel as if we’re doing what we ought to be doing in a Center for Bioethics, doing what bioethics professors should do, and I imagine there are other people who don’t react that way at all, and are quite upset at what’s going on.
Mischke: In layman’s terms, there are some (stem cell) companies out there, without naming names, that are so chomping at the bit to get busy on this, and not wanting to go through all the hoops they have to because there’s some serious money to be made, there are some companies that are taking some shortcuts here and there. And every now and then there’s someone who maybe calls them on it, and says, “Hey, this is typically not the way things are done, fellows. This might be dangerous in some cases.”
Turner: That’s a good summary. That’s how it looks. And usually these are fairly small operations. These are small clinics operating on the margins of medicine. In this case what’s strange is that there’s a governor involved.
Mischke: But here’s the deal. You simply ask the FDA: “Hey, you might want to take a peek here, you know, just see what these guys are up to.” And the company comes at you with both barrels saying: “Hey, little man! Don’t mess with our province!”
Give me a percentage. How many people are on the ethics end of things, watching what these big companies are doing, versus the people working at these companies, full speed ahead, put the pedal to the metal, we’ve got some business to get done. I get the sense there aren’t enough on the ethics side.
Turner: There are probably not enough people looking into these companies, paying attention and scrutinizing them, as there needs to be. There are a surprising number of companies here in the United States that go on the Internet and market stem cell therapies, and there is no indication at all that anything that anything they are providing and charging a lot of money for has undergone any kind of regulatory approval and is safe or effective in any way. It’s a very old-fashioned kind of snake oil salesman, coming along and taking people’s money and not offering anything in return. People can die as a result of this.
Mischke: Well, I’m glad you’re out there. I’m glad you’re doing what you’re doing. And I’m glad there are other people out there with backbone, backing you up.