Charles Dharapak, File, Associated Press
He calls it innovative. Others call it a big risk. In any case, the stem cell procedure that Texas Gov. Rick Perry had last month was an unusual experiment to fix a common malady: a bad back.
Perry, the newest GOP presidential candidate, has access to the best possible care and advice. 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 infection to cancer and may even 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's not clear how much of this Perry might have known.
His doctor and friend, orthopedist Dr. 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 side effects or risks.
However, some top 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 consults for several biotech companies and 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. And he feels like that is certainly his right to determine the best course of treatment for him."
Perry's treatment was first reported by the Texas Tribune. The procedure was done by Jones, who works at Foundation Surgical Hospital — a private, doctor-owned orthopedics center in suburban Houston — but Perry spokesman Mark Miner would not say where it took place.
"The governor chose this procedure to repair a reoccurring back ailment" and has confidence in the team that did it, Miner told The Associated Press. "The governor believed in this innovative approach."
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 — it's what doctors are using when they do bone marrow transplants. The cells are being studied for everything from heart disease to diabetes, but it's too soon to know if these approaches are safe or effective.
Some orthopedic surgeons, including Dr. Christoph Meyer at Jones' hospital, 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.
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