Dr. Death was a brilliant series about a rogue doctor that was unqualified at his job and made a lot of bad decisions that injured or killed many people. This terrifying tale of medical malpractice also shone a light on the problems with the medical system that could allow such an individual to bounce around from office to office and keep his medical license.
Laura Beil, host and reporter of Dr. Death, did an amazing job on a series that at times felt like a horror movie, but she just may have topped herself with her new six-part series, Bad Batch, that doesn’t just call into question medical practices, but an entire largely unregulated industry – stem cells.
Here’s the show summary from Wondery:
Patients are offered a miracle cure, but instead they end up rushed to the hospital in critical condition. The race is on to track down what went wrong with several patients in Texas before more people get hurt. The trail leads to a stem cell company with a charismatic CEO, and to an entire multibillion dollar industry where greed and desperation collide.
The bulk of the show is about John Kosolcharoen, the charismatic CEO of Liveyon, an ambitious stem cell company that raced ahead of existing research to provide cure-alls to patients who can afford the $5000 injections. After successfully injecting himself with stem cells and later his mother, he was convinced that he had found the answer that people were looking for, along with a way to make a lot of money.
After people starting getting sick, all the “bad batch” of vials of stem cells were destroyed and the finger-pointing began on who was to blame. John blamed the doctors who purchased the stem cells from him for improper handling of the vials even though the FDA didn’t share his conclusions.
Host and researcher Laura Beil expanded the basic news story to look at the science and regulation behind stem cells and explain it in an easy to understand way. John K, as he’s referred to in the podcast, was more than happy to talk to her because he did not see himself as the villain, which made the story more complicated.
At a Wondery listening party Q and A for Bad Batch, Laura told me that to tell a big story like this narratively “You have to pick out the details that matter most, but leave in enough to tell the story. You have one central character, the industry itself, the science of it, and the regulations.”
The main reason that any of this happened, according to Beil, is that stem cells are not treated as drugs and the FDA’s attitude is that it’s not a drug to regulate since you’re just moving parts of your own body around.
There is a legitimate scientific supported use for stem cells, and the promise is legitimate but they’re being abused. Liveyon spent a million dollars on a commercial seminar for doctors who were pitched on how much money they could make and then given a script of exactly what to say to patients.
Liveyon was preying on people for whom the promise of a miracle cure from stem cells was their last hope for a better life and they were happy to pay whatever it took. Their ads for patients were like siren songs that caused people to want to believe that it’s going to work and that belief creates a placebo effect.
“I’ve been writing about medicine for 25 years,” Laura says, “and the placebo effect is powerful. The more you pay for something the stronger the placebo effect is.”
Hernan Lopez, the CEO of Wondery, was at the Q and A and asked Laura, “Should the fact that the treatments are cash only be a red flag?”
“Yes!”, Laura responded, “but there are patients that have the idea that medical research is too slow. For those who still want to try stem cells please do your research first.”
The scary part is that there’s still a lot we don’t know about stem cell treatments. As Laura pointed out, we don’t know whose a good candidate and we don’t know whats a safe treatment. “It’s all about informed consent but people aren’t getting it,” she says.
Laura’s advice for people who are desperate for something to happen is to join a clinical trial where you are monitored by doctors with an expected outcome. Unfortunately, there’s evidence that 90 percent of drugs that go into clinical trials don’t work and the general public is often misled by slick advertising that often uses exaggerated or misleading claims.
And beyond all the science and the explanations, there’s the story of the man behind it all. John K. is a quintessentially American figure, a smooth talker who got in over his head Liveyon and he comes across as a very sympathetic character which makes him hard to hate.
It’s an utterly devastating story that hopefully will cause people to think twice before paying cash for the dream of an instant fix to all their problems.
The first four episodes of Bad Batch are available now or you can sign up for Wondery Plus and listen to all six.