Stem cells of youth

Recently,  I listened to a friend recount his “stem cell treatment” at a medical spa in Europe.  The treatment costs about P1 million.  The clinic where it is done has lately been attracting hundreds of Filipinos in search of the modern version of the proverbial fountain of youth.

“You’re fetched from the airport by a limousine,” my friend said, “and brought to a beautiful countryside lodge in the middle of a lush forest.” Over three relaxing days, three injections of a serum taken from the fetus of a sheep are administered on the patient’s buttocks. In between treatments, the spa’s overseas guests are taken on a guided tour of nearby sights as part of the package. The physical change is supposed to be felt gradually after a week. “I can’t explain to you exactly how it works,” he said, “but I do feel good and strong. All the aches in my bones are gone, and the wrinkles on my face have receded.”  He did look rested, I must say.  But, if I had that kind of money, I thought to myself, I would sooner buy a motorcycle.

Stem cell experimentation—and the post-human future it signifies—has always fascinated me. And so I asked my no-nonsense dermatologist who has been treating me for occasional allergic flare-ups what she thought of stem cells as the new path to prolonged youth. “It’s definitely the newest craze in town,” she confirmed.  More than a dozen of her own patients have been enticing her with an all-expenses-paid European holiday just to accompany them to this famous clinic. She advises them instead to take off for a week and pamper themselves at a local spa if they have money to spend. But if they are persistent, she tells them they can get the same treatment in China or Thailand for maybe half the price.

These foreign clinics are not medical centers for stem cell therapy, she tells me, short of saying they are scams. They are really nothing but expensive spas that offer a menu of rejuvenation treatments. The cells taken from the fetuses of animals and injected into their clients’ bodies cannot be called stem cells, she says emphatically. They are adult cells.

Stem cells are called such because they are the cells that generate fresh tissue or blood. The human body has reserves of these stem cells, mostly found in the bone marrow.  They are mobilized like an army when the body requires regeneration from injury or illness. Sometimes, when the healing, for example, of a broken bone is taking an unusually long time, a surgeon may draw stem cells from a person’s bone marrow, and graft these directly onto his injured bone.  These autologous stem cells (meaning, sourced from the same person) speed up the healing process.  These are also used to treat some forms of cancer like leukemia.  At the moment of birth, a baby’s umbilical cord is filled with stem cells, and these are sometimes harvested and preserved for future use to treat that baby’s congenital illnesses or defects.

But cellular therapy that uses live or fresh cells or processed tissue from animal embryos like sheep has no proven therapeutic value, my doctor says.  At best, it is a harmless procedure that gives the illusion of well-being and youth.  At worst, it may lead to infections and allergic reactions.

My interest in this field is not that of a medical scientist, but of a social scientist. I sit in a bioethics committee that is concerned with the policy implications of new medical technologies like organ transplants.  I have long wondered how institutions like the Philippine Medical Association and the Department of Health should regard certain types of cellular therapy that appear to me to lie at the borderline of medical practice.  I am concerned that such treatments are advertised in our newspapers, without anyone from the local science or medical community certifying to or challenging their value as forms of medical treatment.

While searching for references on cellular therapy, I came across an article by a Dr. Stephen Barrett.  He writes: “The theory behind cellular therapy is senseless. The American Cancer Society has strongly advised people not to seek it. Under ordinary circumstances, cells from the organs of one species cannot replace the cells from the organs of other species. When foreign proteins are injected, the immune system attacks them. In addition, injections of animal cells can spread viral disease and trigger severe allergic reactions. When taken by mouth, animal cells are digested and are not absorbed intact into the body.”

Dr. Barrett’s warning makes sense to me.  Though I am not a medical doctor, I have read enough of the body’s complex immune system to appreciate the tremendous problems it poses to recipients of organ transplants.   Even with the closest possible match between donor and recipient, the possibility of rejection remains. Thus, immuno-suppressants are prescribed to avert rejection. We are talking here of organs taken from other human beings, not from animals. One can imagine what happens when tissues harvested from another species are grafted or injected directly into the human body.  If the body’s immune system is strong, it will likely reject or attack these alien tissues before they can do any harm or good.

Nothing I say here, of course, will matter much to those who have money to spend in the endless quest to fill up the unexamined void in their lives. Common sense is no match against the powerful desire for eternal youth, especially when the promised rejuvenation is buttressed by a dubious scientism.  As there is no cure for folly, we can only draw consolation from what Nietzsche once said: “[W]e must occasionally find pleasure in our folly, or we cannot continue to find pleasure in our wisdom.”

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