Spine Surgery Cover-Up? Legal Threats Chill Misinfo Research; The Longevity Industry

Derick Alison
Derick Alison
7 Min Read

Welcome to the latest edition of Investigative Roundup, highlighting some of the best investigative reporting on healthcare each week.

Spine Surgery Cover-Up?

A product made from umbilical cord blood that was the subject of an FDA warning was used in spine surgeries at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center in Manhattan, and a visiting researcher launched an internal complaint that patients should have been informed, the New York Times reported.

Prior to the warning, some 40 patients at the hospital had received treatment with the fluid under the direction of Roger Härtl, MD, a senior surgeon and professor at Weill Cornell, who is also a physician for the New York Giants, the Times reported. “The surgeries were documented in a draft study that Dr. Härtl and others, including the visiting researcher, had intended to publish, tracking the fluid’s effectiveness in fusing delicate bones,” the outlet stated.

However, the visiting researcher, Pravesh Gadjradj, MD, raised concerns that Härtl had not gone on to inform patients of the FDA’s warning after it was issued, according to a complaint filed with the hospital and reviewed by the Times.

Medical ethicists told the Times that FDA warning letters “do not require that patients be notified about a product’s potential problems, posing an ethical dilemma for clinicians,” the article stated. Nonetheless, even without a formal requirement, ethicists said, “there is often a moral obligation to inform patients, especially regarding new or untested treatments, but other considerations can get in the way.”

Dozens of other medical centers also listed the fluid on their hospital pricing records, the Times reported, citing data collected from the company Visible Charges.

A spokeswoman for NewYork-Presbyterian declined to comment on Gadjradj’s complaint, the Times reported. However, she said that the hospital had stopped using the fluid before the FDA issued its warning in February 2022. She did not say whether patients had been told about receiving the fluid, or later, about its potential problems.

Härtl declined the Times’ request for an interview. But he said in emails that he had used the fluid between 2019 and 2021 “as a bone grafting alternative” in minimally invasive spine surgeries, the Times reported. He did not directly address questions about what patients knew, but wrote that he “did not receive any patient complaints or see any unexpected adverse events.”

“My goal has always been to reduce the pain and suffering of patients by advancing the effectiveness of spine surgery,” Härtl added, in part, according to the Times.

Legal Threats Chill Misinfo Research

Research entities are pulling back on certain work related to misinformation out of concern for legal threats, the Washington Post reported.

“Academics, universities, and government agencies are overhauling or ending research programs designed to counter the spread of online misinformation amid a legal campaign from conservative politicians and activists who accuse them of colluding with tech companies to censor right-wing views,” the Post wrote.

Interviews with more than two dozen professors, government officials, physicians, nonprofits, and research funders — many of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity — indicated an escalating campaign at a time when online propaganda is growing, the Post reported.

The campaign has affected not only research into political falsehoods, but also the quality of medical information in a variety of areas, the Post reported. And it has affected the likes of Stanford University and the NIH, among other entities.

Furthermore, the campaign has left academics and philanthropic funders discussing how to collectively defend the field of disinformation research, the Post reported. Proposals have included creating a group to gather donations into a central fund to pay for crisis communications and legal support as well as cybersecurity counseling and perhaps even physical security.

Academics are also considering ways to rebrand their work to attract less controversy, the Post reported.

Similar conversations are being had at public health agencies, one source told the Post. “This whole area of research has become radioactive,” the individual said.

The Longevity Industry

Though the longevity business was once primarily confined to niche podcasts and books, it’s taken on new life as a bevy of podcasters build massive followings and businesses online, Axios reported.

Streamers and celebrities have elevated the field, Axios wrote, and wealthy entrepreneurs are “trying to invest their way into a breakthrough money hasn’t been able to buy.”

The rise in direct-to-consumer media has brought longevity discussions to the masses, Axios reported. Now, the global longevity and anti-aging market is expected to grow to $183 billion by 2028, the outlet added, citing the business intelligence firm Grand View Research.

All the while, beyond certain lifestyle practices like eating a healthy diet, staying active, maintaining social interaction, and getting adequate sleep, “some scientists say there’s not much out there that’s proven to be effective in extending how long someone can live healthily,” Axios cautioned.

“Once you get outside of that, there’s not a lot that is crystal clear,” Matt Kaeberlein, PhD, a biologist at the University of Washington, told the outlet.

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    Jennifer Henderson joined MedPage Today as an enterprise and investigative writer in Jan. 2021. She has covered the healthcare industry in NYC, life sciences and the business of law, among other areas.

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