Space City Skeptics

The Official Blog of the Houston Skeptic Society

Americans Make Run for the Border for Unproven Stem Cell Therapy…..

with 2 comments

On Monday, Houston’s 11 News reported on the well worn path that Americans are travelling to gain access to unproven and risky treatments in Mexico. This phenomenon is not new, having had recent infamous peaks in popularity during the brief heydays of bogus cancer cures like laetrile and shark cartilage. But this time folks are crossing the border to obtain the current hot focus of many alternative medicine providors, so-called stem cell therapy. The report focused on a Dr. Omar Gonzalez and was typical of what passes for health and science reporting these days.

The reporter offers up some anecdotes of satisfied customers, completely meaningless of course, and confuses legitimate research on therapies involving embryonic stem cells with what goes on at this particular clinic:

“Stem cell research is advancing in the United States. Clinic trials are just beginning and that means it could take years before people who go to Mexico are able to get treatment at home.”

What isn’t mentioned is what Dr. Gonzalez is actually up to, despite the fact that this information is easily found on the clinic’s website. Once at the clinic, a patient undergoing the therapy has human placental tissue, harvested from women at the time of their delivery, implanted under their skin after a small incision is made, which is then closed with a single stitch.  According to the website,

we are proud to claim this method of Placenta therapy is effective, simple, long lasting, non-toxic and risk free.” (bold in original)

Gonzalez claims that this therapy is effective for a wide variety of health concerns ranging from simple everyday complaints of aging such as fatigue and memory problems to major maladies like cancer and AIDS, and everything in between. It shouldn’t be too suprising to readers familiar with the proponents of unproven therapies like this that there isn’t a shred of evidence for these claims provided other than vague generalizations and blatant misinformation. He even attempts to support use of his therapy by mentioning the success of stem cells used in bone marrow transplants for leukemia. Sadly, it seems that many Americans are not picking up on that bait and switch. They also don’t appear to be aware of the tried and true skeptical dictum that any treatment which is claimed to treat everything, almost certainly treats nothing.

Also not suprising, as it is typical of bogus treatments, Dr. Gonzalez has an out in case a patient doesn’t experience a “miraculous” cure. It comes in the form of a disclaimer: 

Results or benefits of this technique will vary according to the patient’s condition and level of deterioration.  This is not a cure although it can put certain conditions in a state of remission.” l

This simple statement says a lot more than what you might think at first glance, and the wording was carefully chosen, likely by some very smart lawyers. If your condition doesn’t improve, or if it gets worse, Gonzalez need only say that you came too late and that your condition had progressed too far. Of course your failure to be cured would be unlikely to stop him from again telling the next sad case that his therapy is “effective, simple, long lasting, non-toxic and risk free.”

He also covers himself if your condition does improve with this disclaimer. Let me explain. Any improvement in serious conditions experienced while using this therapy are most likely attributable to a variety of reasons, the least of which being physiologic changes caused directly by the therapy itself. Most chronic medical problems are either self-limited or have waxing and waning courses, which explains why simple regression towards the mean and the natural human tendency towards post hoc reasoning often leads to testimonials in favor of a bogus therapy. The natural fluctuations in these conditions will eventually return the patient to the same point that they were at prior to the therapy. Other components of the placebo effect, such as the desire to please the provider, the excitement of a novel therapy, and the psychological drive to make the therapy worth the good doctor’s fee of up to $10,000 can lead to short-term subjective improvements but they do not cure cancer. 

The clinic website, in several locations, reassures potential patients that stem cell/placenta therapy is completely safe.

“Certainly. The tissue is tested extensively and is confirmed to be sterile. We use a certified laboratory to perform testing above and beyond what the law requires as with the Good Tissue Manufacturing (GTM) These tests include HIV in three modalities; Hepatitis B and C; Toxoplasmosis; Citomegalovirus; Sifilis; Rubeola.”

Science-based physicians don’t make claims of total safety with any procedure which involves the use of biological material such as with blood transfusions or organ transplant. Claiming otherwise is unethical. There is no way to be 100% certain that blood or tissue is free from these infectious organisms. Also, I have grave reservations about the quality of any lab that associates itself with this clinic. There is a long track record of laboratories that exist solely to provide the test results that providors of irregular medicine want. 

Clincis like this take advantage of desperate people who often feel as if they have nowhere else to turn. They fool people into wasting money, with some even spending life savings or going into significant debt, on unproven and potentially dangerous promises of an easy cure. The worst is when people actually forego real medical treatment, or palliative care meant to ease the suffering of their final days, and end up severely diminishing the quality of the life they have left. Superficial fluff news pieces like the one reporting on Dr. Gonzalez are not uncommon, and they do cause harm. Rather than actual investigative reporting, it served as an advertisement for the clinic. I encourage people to call or write to the station to let them know that we deserve better.


Written by skepticpedi

November 20, 2008 at 2:58 pm

2 Responses

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  1. I wonder what the dangers are in inserting a piece of placenta under the skin. It is hard to believe that there won’t be some sort of strong immune response. Not to mention, how gross is that?


    November 21, 2008 at 1:29 pm

  2. Primarily the danger is infectious. It is impossible to assure, as Dr. Gonzalez attempts to, that there is 0% chance of acquiring things like HIV, Hep B, or Hep C. We can’t even keep our nation’s blood supply 100% safe because it is impossible. Even the best testing can still miss folks who have only very recently become infected and even the best testing is not 100% sensitive and specific. His statements would never fly in the US, which is why he works out of Mexico.


    November 21, 2008 at 5:12 pm

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