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Rick Perry, Stem Cell Therapy and the Battle Between Medical Freedom and Opportunism

The Texas Medical Board is putting off until April a vote on how to regulate adult stem cell therapy, which involves using tissues from one's own body rather than controversial stem cells cultivated from human embryos. We don't blame 'em. This issue is thornier than a Texas mesquite thicket, posing a, um, thicket of countervailing arguments:

Should individual adult stem cell treatments be federally regulated in the interest of desperate patients who might fall prey to hucksters wielding big promises and potentially dangerous, unproven therapies? Or should the choice be the patient's, in the name of individual liberty and, just maybe, medical pioneering?

That question hasn't been answered definitively, but the FDA has taken the stance that adult stem cells therapies -- even though they come from your own body -- are manipulated enough to become drugs and should be regulated as such.

To complicate matters for the Medical Board, the governor is involved.

Rick Perry had his own adult stem cells, derived from body fat, injected to treat back pain recently, in hopes that the adult stem cells will seek out and heal his injury. His doc is a Houston pal who specializes in cosmetic operations. According to Nature, his cells were cultivated at a new lab in Houston, jointly owned by a South Korean company.

If he hasn't already, the doctor will probably get a letter from the FDA politely asking that he cease and desist, because treating the governor with adult stem cells is illegal. That's what happened in Colorado, where the FDA recently took a clinic to federal court last fall for administering adult stem cells in unproven, orthopedic applications for broken bones and torn tendons. (The only proven treatment using adult stem cells is for leukemia.)

The FDA's aggressiveness is understandable. Last year I traveled with a woman to Tijuana, where she went to receive an infusion of her own adult stem cells. She suffers from primary progressive multiple sclerosis -- the most aggressive form of the neurological disorder for which there is no cure, and no effective treatment.

She arrived at the clinic believing she'd stroll out without needing her walker. Her "doctors" there did little to temper her impossible expectations -- in fact, they fed them. She didn't stroll out of the clinic after the first treatment.

She sat hunkered over in her scooter, depleted by a mild dose of chemotherapy. The U.S.-based fixer neglected to inform her it was part of the regimen. After a few weeks, whatever benefits she thought she'd felt -- likely attributable to the placebo effect -- had evaporated, along with nearly $30,000.

The point is, Perry is looking to adult stem cells as a panacea, no doubt in part because embryonic stem cells are so fraught for his evangelical base. But the jury's still out on how effective, and how safe, they are. It makes for an interesting debate, though. Protecting the vulnerable from the unscrupulous is a worthy goal. Yet with thousands of desperate people streaming across the border into Mexico or overseas to places like China to receive unproven therapies, where medical standards may not be as high, it's tough to say which poses the bigger risk.


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