An abuse of stem cells

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.


  1. birgerjohansson says

    “But then, that’s South Park: almost always great thudding ham-handed bullshit.”

    Um, there is a place for crude humor, like the episode of Family guy where….wait, ALL episodes of Family Guy are gross! But Family Guy holds nothing sacred, which I consider a big step up from the bland TV comedy USA got ca 1980, thanks to the Moral Majority.
    — — — — — —
    The long waiti for government-sponsored surgery in Sweden sometimes force people to purchase operations in Germany and other EU countries, but this is a case where the common regulations are helpful. You do not suffer the same risks as in the “stem cell tourism” countries.

  2. dianne says

    Tests showed that the mass was made up of abnormal, primitive cells and that it was growing very aggressively.

    Kill it. Kill it with cis-platin.

  3. Akira MacKenzie says

    Con artists always seek out the most permissive environment.

    So much for the glibertarian insistence that unregulated market forces would prevent fraud because “no one would want to deal with a con man!”

    Of course, when that fails and they discover that consumer can and will happily they then proclaim that people have “the right” to purchase snake oil. “What’s the harm?”

    When people start dying from lake of actual medical treatment, the defenders of economic freedom finally resort to Social Darwinism: “They ought to have known better that this product doesn’t work! Let ’em die! It will clean the stupid people out of the gene pool!”

    In short, it’s awfulness all the way down,

  4. Akira MacKenzie says

    Edit: …can and will happily purchase defective or fraudulent goods and services…

  5. Kreator says

    I used to watch South Park a lot, but I still remember the first time the show disappointed me with a Libertarian “lesson”, and this was when I was much younger, even before I knew anything about US politics. It was the episode with the underpant gnomes, which I ironically still find very funny by themselves. However, the final message (as one critic put it, “the most fully developed defense of capitalism” ever produced by the show,) didn’t sit well with me.

    By the way, I also find the reason for doing the stem cells episode quite poor, and (surprise, surprise) includes encouragement by a Christian producer.

    Matt and Trey also said that they had held off the Christopher Reeve parody for a while, in which Reeve was sucking the stem cells out of fetuses. Trey said, “For a long time we’re like, ‘You know what? Maybe that’s not cool.’ So that was one of the few shows where we came up with the idea and spent a whole season not doing it. And then the next season where, you know, we’re like, ‘We’re out of ideas, we’re out of ideas,’ we’re like, ‘We’ve got the ‘Christopher Reeve sucking stem cells’ idea.’ ‘No, that’s really too brutal.’ And it just so happened that he was on Larry King that night. And actually, Anne Garefino, our producer, is, a lot of times, our sounding board, because she seriously goes to church every Sunday morning. She’s the one that’s always going, ‘You guys, no, no, no.’ And that’s when we know we’re onto something good. But then we had seen him on Larry King, and we’re like, ‘You know what? F**k him. He really is taking up this cause of ‘Everyone needs to help me out.” Right before he died, I think he started going a little crazy, but he started getting really weird about it. And then Anne saw him on Larry King and was like, ‘Yeah, you know what? F**k him.'”


    PS: I’m from Argentina, as I might have mentioned before. Please don’t think our medicine in general is bad, many people come here for legitimate medical procedures (usually thanks to our universal health care, which extends to foreigners.) That’s not to say there aren’t problems, of course. Our public hospitals are often severely underfunded and some of the most remote areas of the country lack qualified professionals in many areas. Still, there are many worse places to fall ill or be injured.

  6. dianne says

    Here’s the problem with the “free market” in medical care: Without regulation to ensure that medications are safe and effective, there is literally no incentive for pharma companies or whoever else jumps into the game to make their products safe and effective. Clinical trials are expensive. A phase III trial can cost hundreds of millions– and be negative. If it’s negative, the company just lost its entire investment, from the computer time to run the first simulation to the marketing people who thought about the name to the clinical trials. All out the window without a bit of profit. Who would do that if they could just release a product and claim that it cured cancer or strokes or male pattern balding or whatever else? The answer is no one. As is evident to anyone who has taken an even cursory look at medical care in the pre-FDA US or similar places. The libertarian vision is a simple and complete failure in this situation.

  7. penalfire says

    12-year-old boys tend to be little Fascists, and the show is aimed at
    12-year-old boys. I didn’t notice how right-wing South Park was until
    revisiting it the last couple years.

    Although the first half of Team America was a good satire of America’s
    so-called “humanitarian interventions.” Problem is the film took for
    granted the mainstream liberal view that America’s interventions are
    blundering efforts to do good; — which they might be for a few policy
    makers, e.g., Samantha Power, but for the most part the intentions are
    related to maintaining regional power and control.

    The “Reality Crashes the Party” parody of Safe Spaces makes me laugh:

    They can be good when they expose pseudo liberalism.

    But again, would be nice to have an episode in which anti-SJW bloggers are
    driven into Safe Spaces by Palestinian activists. That would be the
    balanced satire.

  8. says

    Hockey great Gordie Howe had stem cell treatments in Mexico in late 2014 and 2015, after having a couple of strokes. They were supposedly part of a medical trial run under license from a San Diego company called Stemedica Cell Technologies. At the time I kind of wondered about the whole thing, since they happened in Mexico. The Howe family claimed positive results, and one of his sons is a doctor, so the story got some rather uncritical coverage in the media.

  9. multitool says

    The outcome was a lot more science-fictional than I expected it to be. Most quack treatments end with either no effect or a boring conventional infection/toxic reaction.

    Instead, this clinic invented a way to generate spontaneous teratomas in full grown adults. Maybe the tumors can grow teeth and hair!

  10. monimonika says

    “mass was made up of abnormal, primitive cells and that it was growing very aggressively.”

    Please someone correct me if I am wrong to think this qualifies as cancer.

  11. Holms says

    Yeah I dropped South Park on the basis that it is mere crudity for the sake of crudity, and that was in my teens. I can only shake my head at seeing that it still has a thriving market.

  12. firstapproximation says


    Please someone correct me if I am wrong to think this qualifies as cancer.

    His doctors also wrote a letter to the New England Journal of Medicine about the case:

    The lesion had some features that overlapped with malignant gliomas (nuclear atypia, a high proliferation index, glial differentiation, and vascular proliferation) but did not show other features typical of cancer (no cancer-associated genetic aberrations were detected on next-generation sequencing of 309 cancer-associated genes [see the Supplementary Appendix]). Thus, although the lesion may be a considered a neoplasm (i.e., a “new growth”), it could not be assigned to any category of previously described human neoplasm on the basis of the data we gathered.

    If you define cancer as ‘a malignant tumor’ it seems to qualify, but I’m not a doctor. In the NYT quote from the article it says:

    If it had been cancer, they could have used drugs to target it. This mass, though, was unique.

    but it could just mean “If it had been a previously seen cancer….”. Whatever the nomenclature, the moral of the story is clear.

  13. Ichthyic says

    Tests showed that the mass was made up of abnormal, primitive cells and that it was growing very aggressively.

    Am I the only one who now wants to see a video of this?

  14. says

    I hope that Mr. Gass is aware of the supreme irony in his having to rely on conventional care to deal with the mess he caused by not trusting in conventional care.

    I wonder if he appealed to the “clinic” for assistance and treatment? And I wonder what the experience has been for others who received similar treatments. Perhaps his extreme wealth enables him to seek reparative treatment without worrying about cost, but I wouldn’t be surprised if others had put their life savings into a “miracle cure” and are now left without money and without recourse. Unless they end up on Medicare, in which case we are all paying for it.