he company’s roster of scientific advisers amounts to a who’s who of prominent stem cell experts, leading figures from Harvard and Stanford who are at the forefront of a field trying to turn basic discoveries into medical treatments of the future.
But instead of trying to develop new therapies itself, the company, LifeVault Bio, intends to store customers’ cells like treasured items in a well-sealed time capsule. The hope is that by preserving pristine cells before aging takes a toll on them, the cells could be used to treat customers should they one day develop heart disease or Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s.
“We believe, and medicine is starting to believe, that this is really going to be a part of your health hygiene,” said LifeVault CEO Trevor Perry, predicting that stem cell banking will become as standard as getting an EKG. He framed the company’s kit, dubbed GoodCell, as a form of “biological insurance”: “You insure a lot of things in your life, but have you taken out a policy on yourself?” Perry said.
The company’s sales pitch has raised eyebrows among outside experts — especially considering the pedigree of its advisers and their history of speaking out against the hype that pervades the stem cell field. The critics’ key point: Stem cell-based treatments don’t exist for the conditions included on LifeVault’s marketing materials, and might never. In other words, you’re paying for something that might not result in any real treatments for you if you do get sick.
The price tag of a GoodCell kit: $995, followed by an annual fee of $95.
“This really is the idea of leveraging real science and real excitement to sell a product that from a health perspective is premature,” said Tim Caulfield of the University of Alberta, a critic of puffed-up health endeavors.
“We don’t know where stem cell research is going to go,” Caulfield added. “It’s fantastically complicated and things are moving at a slow pace, though it is fantastically exciting. We also don’t know that collecting our cells now is going to lead to these benefits.”
In an interview, Dr. David Scadden — a GoodCell co-founder and co-director of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute — was more tempered about the product than some of the company’s marketing. (“Not only could those healthy cells be used one day to treat the effects of disease and aging; they could help you know which actions to take to live a healthier life right now,” read a pitch sent to journalists.)
Scadden highlighted how for now there are only a few approved stem cell treatments available, including bone marrow transplants for certain blood cancers. He said he wanted to be particularly careful not to overhype GoodCell because the excitement around stem cells has been coopted by clinics that offer unregulated therapies that are often ineffective and sometimes dangerous.
“I don’t want people to do this because they think if they don’t they’re going to be missing out on something,” he said.
But Scadden emphasized that stem-cell-based therapies are being tested in a growing number of clinical trials for an expanding number of indications. The versatile cells have shown in some studies that they can replace or regenerate damaged tissue, and scientists are optimistic that there will be an array of such validated treatments on the market at some point in the future. If that’s the reality, he said, it’s worth considering as an individual whether it makes sense to bank one’s cells now in case they come in handy later.
“I do think this has some potential to create a future value,” said Scadden, who enlisted other prominent stem cell scientists, including Dr. Joseph Wu of Stanford and Kevin Eggan of Harvard, to be advisers for GoodCell.
Here’s what happens if you purchase a GoodCell kit: Someone will come to your home or office and draw about 40 milliliters of blood, which will be shipped to the company’s lab in New Jersey. Scientists there will store both hematopoietic stem cells that are found in the blood and other types of blood cells that can be coaxed into becoming induced pluripotent stem cells — the embryonic-like stem cells with the capacity to form virtually any type of human cell. The intention is that the cells could be pulled out of storage when needed, multiplied, and transformed into heart cells or neurons or other specialized cells to create a personalized treatment for the customer.
The company also keeps samples of customers’ DNA and blood plasma, which it says can help establish a baseline of a person’s health and could possibly be used to diagnose disease.
Scientists not involved with the company said it’s hard to know exactly what services are being offered based on the information available on its site, but they raised several issues about GoodCell’s claims.
“Is it worth paying $1,000 for a big what if?”
Dr. Dan Kaufman, director of cell therapy at the University of California, San Diego
For one, if the goal is to convert the stored cells into iPS cells and then into whatever cell is needed for a treatment, why couldn’t doctors take a patient’s cells and do the same thing when the person actually got sick? Outside experts said it’s not clear that the stem cells that can be derived from a 65-year-old person would make worse therapies than the cells from a 35-year-old person, particularly because it’s not known what clinicians will have to do to rejigger them into therapies.
“Why do you need to bank those?” said Dr. Dan Kaufman, the director of cell therapy at the University of California, San Diego. “I’m walking around with my skin cells, and if the technology is that good, if I get sick, you could take those skin cells and turn them into heart or brain cells or whatever.”
More broadly, the outside experts said these treatments simply don’t exist yet — and they might never — so it’s not known what type of cell, if any, will work. They said they worry that claims about the benefits of stem cell banking prey on people’s hopes that science will find cures for diseases without offering a realistic check on how feasible that actually is.
The GoodCell website is careful to note that stem cells are “future potential treatments” and they are “being used in research and being clinically evaluated for treatment of” conditions including ALS, multiple sclerosis, and Alzheimer’s. But the outside experts said such language could sway customers into thinking that there is a high likelihood of eventual clinical success.
To tie it back to the insurance metaphor: If you have a flood insurance policy and your house floods, you will likely get some payout from your insurer. But if you pay for this service as an insurance policy against Alzheimer’s, say, and you develop the disease, there’s no certainty that scientists by that time will have developed a cell-based therapy for it. Or maybe if they have, what if you get heart disease instead, and scientists haven’t figured that one out yet?
“Is it worth paying $1,000 for a big what if?” Kaufman said.
Scadden said he did see a benefit in banking younger cells and trying to capture them as close to their unaltered state as possible. Mutations build up in our blood cells over time, he said, and in doing so appear to contribute to a range of health issues in the body’s other systems. Plus, he said, younger cells are easier to grow.
“It’d be great to have some cells with the fewest mutations possible,” he said. “It kind of intuitively makes sense.”
He acknowledged that customers’ investments might not pay off if they opt to bank their stem cells. But he said in his view, the GoodCell kit did go beyond just selling hope. In fact, he’s storing his own cells.
“This really is for people who have a belief that medical technology and the control over materials will continue to increase as our understanding of biology does,” he said. “We only want to do things that will be of value to people.”