60 Minutes Exposes Fraudulent Stem Cell Therapies
January 8, 2012 4 Comments
Tonight I watched the 60 Minutes hidden camera special on stem cell fraud. It left me with mixed emotions and more than a little confusion based on the comments (or edited comments) of Professor Joanne Kutzberg from Duke University (note: she was not the target of the investigative report). It appeared from the 60 minutes piece that Kutzberg was saying there was no stem cell hope for Cerebral Palsy.
I have been tracking her team’s research for some time and the original Duke press release is online here. https://www.dtmi.duke.edu/news-publications/news/dtmi-news-archives/kurtzberg-and-team-move-forward-with-cerebral-palsy-cord-blood-study. The Duke study was impressive enough that Medical College of Georgia is expanding and continuing the research.
Cerebral Palsy patient Dallas Hextell’s story was featured on the Today Show in 2010 and in that feature (unlike 60 Minutes) Kutzberg had a cameo talking about the hope of stem cells. Dallas was one of her patients and had a remarkable change from his own (autologous) cord blood stem cells within 5 days. You can find a link discussing the story here: http://singularityhub.com/2010/04/08/cord-blood-stem-cell-treatment-for-cerebral-palsy-in-clinical-trial/
To the credit of the medical expert from the Today Show, she stated that one of the things medicine doesn’t do very well is to listen to anecdotes like Dallas’. I completely agree.
So you can see where at least some of my confusion comes from.
Now for the real dark side of stem cells. Fraud. 60 minutes is to be applauded for exposing the profiteering taking place at centers around the World. The Ecuadorian clinic run by an unlicensed American doctor actually sold dead and dysfunction cells by mail and shipped them to a family in the US. Outrageous. The family had a child with cerebral palsy and the big question for me is why 60 minutes didn’t have Dr Kutzberg talking about the potential for autologous stem cells to help. Perhaps the family didn’t have their child’s stored cord blood. This family had tried stem cells from a central American clinic with little to no effect. But who knows what quality or quantity of viable cells were actually administered. Perhaps that child received no viable stem cells at all. We just don’t have any way to know or find out at this time.
So who can you trust in stem cell off-label therapy? Tough question and apart from EmCell where I was treated with stem cells, I don’t know who to trust.
A reasonable question for you is why do I trust EmCell? Let me try and work you through what I went through in my selection process.
EmCell is operated out of a government hospital in Ukraine and is fully licensed to perform fetal stem cell therapies in that country. Each lot of stem cells is certified as transplantable and disease free based on EU and US guidelines. That is not to say US policies approve of fetal stem cell therapies – they don’t – except under special FDA approved research studies. EmCell, however, is a joint government – private sector operation and is not a single for-profit doctor shop. The specialists at EmCell have up to 20 years of experience with stem cell therapies and are widely published (albeit mostly in the Russian Language). Their team consists of a transplantation specialists, cell biologists, a neurologist, pediatricians and other specialists. I encourage you to check this out for yourself like I did: http://www.emcell.com/en/publications.htm
In addition, EmCell has numerous impressive patents (including 2 US patents for the treatment of HIV) on its cell therapies (http://www.emcell.com/en/patents.htm) and frankly they are at least a decade ahead of most Western researchers in cell therapies.
Now a little more about real, although anecdotal observations and evidence, of neuroregeneration from fetal stem cells. (Wikipedia has a reasonable discussion of this http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wallerian_degeneration and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peripheral_nerve_injury).
One patient I know very well is myself. My first major lumbar disc injury took place in 1992 when I blew out a huge piece of my L5-S1 (lowest) disc and developed immediate problems. A few days after this I had the large fragment of detached disc removed from my spine surgically. My recover was quick and yet I maintained weakness in my left foot dorsiflexors (muscles that left up the foot from the ankle hinge joint). I would often stub my toes on that side, or trip on a step, curb or uneven surface. If I placed my left heel down I couldn’t hold my forefoot or toes up at all. I had to have additional surgery a couple of years later in 1994 when the loss of so much disc volume created impingent on the exiting nerves. I had a bone graft and fusion at that level. A few years after that the L4-5 herniated mostly on the left side and I had even more surgery. All in all I would estimate I had less than 10% of my normal strength on that left side when it came to ankle flexion. Now a little over 2 months after stem cells I have close to 80% strength back, and without any effort at rehabilitation. That is shocking to me. In most of the research I am aware of damage to the axon (crushed by the disc and compression secondary to collapsing of the intervertebral space) should cause distal loss of axonal function and possible loss of the nerve cell body.
I was nearly 2 decades post injury with no recovery of peripheral muscle/nerve function in the area damaged by the disc injury. That is not at all uncommon with major disc injuries, spinal cord injuries or nerve crush injuries. I certainly wouldn’t have expected recovery after 19 years, even from fetal stem cell transplantation. But it happened very quickly. Faster than it should have happened. That puzzled me.
So I began searching for more clues to this remarkable effect. As with many persistent neurological deficits – even ones like disc injury related peripheral neuropathy – immune cells in the nervous system likely inhibit recovery of function. I truly do not think I regrew nerves that quickly. So what was the effect of stem cells on this process?
It is not fully understood (at least by me), but most likely it has to do with neurotrophic factors and anti-inflammatory regulatory effects of the fetal transplanted cells. This may be related to the TNF-alpha inhibition I have previously discussed on this blog.
Equally, I suspect the effects being observed in the early changes taking place with the children with autism I have been following are not due to neuroregeneration in the central nervous system. It is just too fast to be secondary to migration and repair of neurocircuitry from peripherally transplanted neurostem cells. While that may happen over the next 12 –24 months, the more likely effects are from stem cell mediated neuroregulation of inflammation.
While 60 Minutes reminds us all to be wary of the false claims and poor quality of stem cells being offered around the world, there is evidence the cells offered at EmCell have therapeutic potential and are actually different. With that we need to be careful to not discard all non-US work as fraudulent. Researchers from the US ought to be making the trek to Kiev to learn just what it is they are doing differently and even better than those therapies offered in the US.