I’m a developmental biologist, so of course I’m enthusiastic about the potential for stem cell therapies. I’m also aware of the limitations and risks. I absolutely hated that heavy-handed, nonsensical satire of stem cell research that South Park aired several years ago, in which Christopher Reeve was shown eating fetuses for their stem cells, which enabled him to walk.
But then, that’s South Park: almost always great thudding ham-handed bullshit. No way people could believe that just gobbling down stem cells would cure diseases.
Unfortunately, as we’re fast learning in the political arena, there is no bullshit so rank that you can’t find someone won’t chow down on it. Science-Based Medicine discusses stem cell tourism — there is such a thing — where people with serious illnesses travel to countries with less restrictive medical practices to get shot up with stem cells. So here’s the story of Jim Gass, a wealthy man who had a stroke and wanted to be healed…so he did research “on the internet” and got the brilliant idea to repair the damage with stem cells. And then he got worse and needed a more conventional medical intervention.
The surgeon gasped when he opened up his patient and saw what was in his spine. It was a huge mass, filling the entire part of the man’s lower spinal column.
“The entire thing was filled with bloody tissue, and as I started to take pieces, it started to bleed,” said Dr. John Chi, the director of Neurosurgical Spine Cancer at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. “It was stuck to everything around it.”
He added, “I had never seen anything like it.”
Tests showed that the mass was made up of abnormal, primitive cells and that it was growing very aggressively. Then came the real shocker: The cells did not come from Jim Gass. They were someone else’s cells.
Mr. Gass, it turned out, had had stem cell therapy at clinics in Mexico, China and Argentina, paying tens of thousands of dollars each time for injections in a desperate attempt to recover from a stroke he had in 2009. The total cost with travel was close to $300,000.
Stem cells are not magic. They are plastic cells that are pluripotent — they can differentiate into a variety of different tissues. But they need instructions and signals in order to develop in a constructive way, and the hard part is reconstructing environmental cues to shape their actions. They’re like Lego building blocks — you can build model spaceships or submarines or houses with them, and they have a lot of creative potential, but it’s not enough to just throw the Lego blocks into a bag and shake them really hard. Basically, Jim Gass was getting the cellular equivalent of receiving massive injections of Legos, in the forlorn hope that they would spontaneously repair his nervous system.
Gorski also points out one of the warning signs that this is a quack therapy: the locations where it was done.
Ask yourself this: Why are so many of these clinics located in countries like Kazakhstan, China, Mexico, and Argentina? It’s not because the scientific facilities are so much more advanced there. It’s because regulatory oversight protecting patients is lax to nonexistent.
Con artists always seek out the most permissive environment.