Dallas resident Laura Beil’s podcast Bad Batch is all about giving patients the information they need about an increasingly popular medical treatment that shows both promise and a worrying lack of oversight. The stem cell industry is sometimes hailed as being able to cure everything from male pattern baldness to knee ligament tears, but the lack of oversight and proper research has had disastrous results for patients all over the country.
Beil’s new project builds on her first podcast, Dr. Death, which covered a Dallas neurosurgeon who paralyzed and killed patients in the operating room, and has now become the first doctor to be convicted for aggravated assault because of care provided in the operating room (read Matt Goodman’s D Magazine feature, which first brought the case to light, here). Beil’s latest installment, which began dropping episodes this month, is another story of vulnerable patients facing harm because they don’t have all the information they need to make an informed decision about their healthcare.
Beil had been looking to tell the story of stem cells for a while and was waiting for the opportunity share it via podcast. “It’s a huge industry, and people are paying their life savings for it,” she says. “Most of the information people are getting is coming from the people trying to sell it. My job is to tell a different story that could help people.”
The podcast, published by Wondery, zooms in on a South Texas clinic that treated several patients with a bad batch of stem cells, leaving several people in the hospital, while also analyzing an industry that has been miracle cure for many. The Texas patients were attracted to the treatment by a local newspaper column where the author sang the praises about how the treatment healed her leg.
The stories in the podcast range from rural Wisconsin residents successfully healed by stem cells to a biomedical consultant in Thailand who left a stem cell research company after he decided that they weren’t operating in a way that would result in safe and effective stem cells.
But because of all the significant success and legitimate research behind stem cells, the narrative behind Bad Batch is unlike true crime podcasts with a clear culprit, Beil says. Alongside the above-board treatment and research, there is a “retail industry springing up selling unapproved therapy to people.”
Texas’ business-friendly environment has made it a hotbed of stem cell treatment, but the lack of regulation and oversight can have real consequences. “Texas has arguably the laxest stem cell regulations are in Texas,” Beil says. “Texas has embraced unapproved stem cell treatment.”
Biel’s transition from science and health journalist operating mostly in print to the voice and reporting behind some of the most popular podcasts in the country has been an engaging one, and she is still learning about how to best tell an audio story.
“In audio, one thing I have learned, and am still trying to learn, is that you only have one shot to interview people,” she says. “In print, you can get more detail or clarify, and you can email or call them back to ask details. In audio you can’t do that.”
Beil hopes that her story balances entertainment with impact and allows listeners to make a more informed decision should they go down the stem cell path. “It is a good story to tell, and as a journalist that is my job, but at the same time I want to tell a story that is in the public service,” she says.
“These remedies that are being sold have not been studied like a drug would, but people doing it make the assumption it is safe and effective. People don’t know how many unknowns there are.”