The Science Behind Rick Perry’s Strange Stem Cell Surgery

Posted by Tim Fernholz


When Rick Perry began his campaign for president last week, his advisers probably prepared him for tough questions about his record as Texas’ longest-serving governor, the budget deficit, and foreign policy.

They might not have been ready for questions about an unusual spine fusion operation Perry underwent last month to deal with a bad back: Stem cells, cultured from his own body fat by a Korean biotech company that also advertises a dog cloning service, were injected into his back and bloodstream.

It was the first time his doctor had performed the procedure, which other physicians say is both risky and ineffective. To biotech firms developing effective treatments based on similar techniques, the story is both a blessing and a curseraising the profile of their research even as the weird science aspects of Perry's tale make stem cell research seem a bit unpalatable. 

While the ability of scientists to derive stem cells from adult body fat, rather than the far more controversial method of culturing them from human embryos, has helped mainstream research into cell treatments, the science remains under dispute.

The Associated Press raised questions about the procedure in a story last Friday, suggesting that it might violate federal regulations. That alone might not bother the famously anti-regulation Perry, but comments from Dr. George Daley of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute might give him pause. “I would never in a million years accept for one of my family members to undergo this,” Daley told the AP.

Cytori Therapeutics, a biotech company that's a finalist in the GOOD Company Project, has developed new techniques to use stem cells from a patient’s fat to treat various health issues and perform reconstructive surgery. Marc Hedrick, a physician and former UCLA researcher who co-founded the company, says Perry took some serious risks in his treatment.

RNL Bio, the Korean firm that cultured Perry’s cells, is “kind of an outlaw company,” Hedrick says, with a record of two patients dying after stem cell treatment and little clinical medical research to back up their claims. Part of the issue is that RNL’s method for obtaining stem cells—growing them in cultures developed from the patient’s fat—is risky and increases the potential for contamination.

“We believe [culturing] lowers its utility and makes it more dangerous,” Hedrick says. “You take something that’s naturally occurring in the body and turn into something that’s not naturally occurring.”

Hedrick also said that injecting the stem cells into the patient’s bloodstream, which was part of Perry’s reported treatment, would have little affect.

“The way it was delivered, it probably ended up going to the lungs and the cells died in a few days; it probably had no effect whatsoever,” Hedrick says. One of the patients who died undergoing this procedure was killed by a blood clot in his lungs.

That’s not to say stem cells have no utility in back surgery—Hedrick points out that the relatively common spinal fusion procedure used by physicians to treat chronic back pain employs patients' bone marrow to help encourage healing. One of the reasons that works is because stem cells present in the marrow encourage re-growth. It’s possible that the topical application of stem cells derived from human fat during spine surgery could have medical benefits, but not soon.

“We’ve performed animal studies on that, and it looks pretty promising, but that is something that needs full trials, FDA approval, European regulatory approval and so forth, and its years off—it’s not cultured fat injected into a vein,” he says.

Perry has said the operation was successful, and his physician, Dr. Stanley Jones, is a major proponent of the surgery after using a similar treatment to cure his own arthritis, but anecdotes are no substitute for peer-reviewed medical studies.

Whenever new medical technology is being developed, a scramble to be both the safest and the first on the market almost inevitably leads to some firms bending the rules, with potential blowback for the entire sector. But Hedrick isn’t too worried.

“Stuff like this is a mixed blessing; on one hand, it helps get the message out there that cell therapy can potentially be useful,” he says. “In the other extreme, it’s arguably not effective and even potentially dangerous on a high-profile injury that could set the field back. Hopefully, over time the legitimate cell therapies that have real clinical trial data that have been validated by medical societies and peer review publications will win out.”

Photo via (cc) Flickr user Gage Skidmore