News & Events

Boston Globe: Doctors wary of Perry’s stem cell treatment

Political Notebook

Doctors wary of Perry’s stem cell treatment

Rick Perry, who spoke to South Carolina Republicans in Columbia yesterday, underwent an unproven stem cell treatment for his back, which some doctors believe poses risks. (Brett Flashnick/Associated Press)
August 20, 2011

NEW YORK – He calls it innovative. Others call it a big risk. In any case, the stem cell procedure that Governor Rick Perry of Texas had last month was an unapproved experimental way of fixing a common malady: a bad back.

Perry, the newest GOP presidential candidate, has access to the best possible care. Yet he and his doctor chose a treatment beyond mainstream medicine: He had stem cells taken from fat in his own body, grown in a lab, and then injected into his back and his bloodstream during a July 1 operation to fuse part of his spine.

The treatment carries potential risks ranging from blood clots to cancer and may run afoul of federal rules, doctors say. At least one patient died of a clot hours after an infusion of fat-derived stem cells outside the United States. It is not clear how much of this Perry might have known.

His doctor and friend, orthopedist Stanley Jones, could not be reached for comment despite repeated requests to the spokeswoman for his Houston-area hospital. Jones told the Texas Tribune that he went to Japan for a stem cell treatment that helped his arthritis and that he had never before tried the procedure he used on Perry. He also said it had no risks.

However, some scientists are questioning the safety and wisdom of Perry’s treatment, especially because it was not part of a clinical trial in which unproven therapies are tested in a way that helps protect patients and advances medical knowledge.

Perry “exercised poor judgment’’ to try it, said Dr. George Q. Daley of Children’s Hospital Boston and the Harvard Stem Cell Institute. “As a highly influential person of power, Perry’s actions have the unfortunate potential to push desperate patients into the clinics of quacks’’ who are selling unproven treatments “for everything from Alzheimer’s to autism.’’

Daley is past president of the International Society for Stem Cell Research, a group of 3,000 scientists and others in the field. He favors stem cell research. But of Perry’s treatment he said: “I would never in a million years accept for one of my family members to undergo this.’’

On the campaign trail Thursday in New Hampshire, Ray Sullivan, Perry’s chief of staff, said: “The governor consulted with his physician and decided the best course of action for him. He’s very pleased with the results of the surgery, with the rapid recovery, and with the procedure that he had.’’

Perry’s treatment was first reported by the Texas Tribune. The procedure was done by Jones, who works at Foundation Surgical Hospital, but Perry spokesman Mark Miner would not say where it took place.

It used Perry’s own “adult’’ stem cells – not embryonic stem cells, a controversial technology that involves destroying an embryo, which the governor opposes. Adult stem cells have long been used to treat cancers such as leukemia and lymphoma – they are what doctors use it bone marrow transplants. The cells are being studied for everything from heart disease to diabetes, but it is too soon to know if these approaches are safe or effective.

Some orthopedic surgeons are experimenting with stem cells to help bones heal. The cells usually are taken from bone marrow and injected or implanted in the trouble spot, such as a knee or shoulder. The theory is that these “master cells’’ will follow cues from cells around them and form bone or cartilage, though scientists worry they also might spur unwanted growth and cancer.

Perry, however, had an even more experimental procedure: stem cells from fat removed by liposuction and grown in a lab before they were put into his spine and bloodstream.

Dr. George Muschler, an orthopedic surgeon at Cleveland Clinic, said fat-derived stem cells are “an unusual choice’’ because they do not form bone as readily.

Using them as was done for Perry is “quite experimental and it’s quite controversial because there isn’t good evidence yet, at least in the medical literature, that fat cells work better or even work at all in repairing bones,’’ said Muschler, who has developed three patents on cell-related technologies.

Dr. Thomas Einhorn, orthopedics chairman at Boston University, has tested experimental stem cell therapies. He said one concern is that Perry’s cells were grown in a lab dish with other ingredients, where there is more of a risk they will transform into cancer and any breach in sterility could lead to an infection.

He also took issue with infusing the cells into Perry’s bloodstream. “I can’t think of any reason to do that. I wouldn’t want to cause a blood clot.’’

It also enters a gray area with the FDA, which does not regulate how doctors practice medicine but does oversee medical products. Growing the cells in culture and possibly mixing them with other substances may make these modified cells a product. FDA spokeswoman Shelly Burgess said the agency could not comment on Perry’s treatment.

© Copyright 2011 Globe Newspaper Company.