Another cell therapy quackery for autism rears its ugly head

Many are the forms of quackery to which autistic children are subjected to. It’s amazing just how many dubious and dangerous treatments (dubbed “biomedical treatments” or “autism biomed”) parents will try in an effort to “recover” their children. Perhaps the most shocking of this quackery that I’ve recently covered is something called “miracle mineral solution” (MMS), which is in reality nothing more than a powerful bleach. Parents make their autistic children drink diluted MMS, bathe in it, and even take bleach as an enema. They try to claim that what they are using is no more powerful than tap water, but in fact the doses involved are much higher than that, high enough to cause symptoms such as nausea and diarrhea. I don’t want to revisit MMS (at least not today), but I do want to revisit another form of autism quackery that I haven’t dealt with in a while. I’m referring to stem cell quackery.

You might remember that three years ago the antivaccine crank blog Age of Autism featured a post by Kent Heckenlively in which he described spending $15,000 to take his daughter to Costa Rica to undergo “stem cell therapy” that involved injecting the cells directly into her cerebrospinal fluid. Heckenlively admitted that, as far as he can tell, the stem cells did no good, but that didn’t stop him from seeking out many and varied additional forms of quackery. I hadn’t heard about stem cell therapy (which almost certainly contains no real stem cells)—until a couple of days ago, when some readers forwarded this article from the Philippines entitled Stem Cell Therapy: Cure For Autism?:

MANILA, Philippines — Parents of children with autism, or other developmental condition for that matter, go to great lengths to find a “cure’’ for their children. Even though these may not exist yet for most conditions, parents exhaust all possible means to look for ways to improve the lives of their children.

For some parents, the cost of these cures is of no question.

For instance, Janise Tang Piap immediately took charge of the situation upon learning that her son, Ethan, has autism. Janise turned to a battalion of doctors and therapists and even attended several conferences to understand her son’s condition and how to improve it.

“I took charge. I researched, I attended conferences. I was like a mad scientist,” she recalls. “Of course, the more important thing for a parent is to accept the fact that your child does have disability before you take charge.”

“Mad scientist”? That’s about right, except that this parent is no “scientist.” She thinks she knows what she is talking about, but she doesn’t. Her knowledge is clearly superficial at best. One wonders what the “conferences” were that she attended. Autism One, perhaps? In any case, as is all too often the case, Piap found a “stem cell clinic” in Germany, Villa Medica. It’s not exactly stem cell therapy, though, although it most definitely takes advantage of public interest in stem cells and their scientific promise in order to sell a product. Basically, what this “therapy” involves is injecting cells from animals, usually sheep:

Ethan underwent what is called Fresh Cell Therapy, a biological treatment by which specially selected fresh or live cells or cell extracts of donor animals, usually sheep, are injected into the human body for treatment of various ailments or rejuvenation purpose.

The procedure uses fresh cells from the fetus of a lamb and takes not more than three hours from harvesting to production to injection of the cells to the patient. All procedures are done in their clinic in Germany.

“In principle, fresh cell therapy, the injectable form, is the mother of all stem cell treatments. The sense of every fresh cell therapy is to rebuild something in the body,” explains Villa Medica medical director Dr. Geoffrey Huertgen, who was recently in Manila.

The immune system of the body serves as the “communicator” which delivers the cells to the organs and tissues that need rebuilding.

“As long as there is an intact immune system, we can treat. Acute cancer cannot be treated. We are treating HIV patients but we are not treating AIDS patients,” Dr. Huertgen explains.

Unlike autologous stem cell transplant, in which blood-forming stem cells are removed, stored, and later given back to the same person, fresh cell therapy is non-invasive and is only injected to the body.

It is also organ-specific, unlike most stem cell treatments. They inject cells that are harvested in a specific organ that will help rebuild the same organ of the patient.

This is utter nonsense, pure pseudoscience, and it’s a complete mischaracterization to claim that this has anything to do with anything resembling real stem cell therapy. For one thing, there is no good reason to think that, even if this clinic is isolating real stem cells from lamb fetuses, these stem cells would do anything whatsoever in humans. Species barriers are not trivial to overcome. If they were, xenotransplantation would not be a major problem. Particularly wrong is the way that Dr. Huertgen claims that an intact immune system is needed because the immune system delivers the cells to the organs and tissues that “need rebuilding.” In reality, the immune cells are far more likely to destroy the lamb cells because they are from a different species than they are to “communicate” or deliver anything to anywhere.

I was particularly interested in the claim that they inject cells harvested from a specific organ in order to help rebuild that same organ in the patient. So I went to the Villa Medical website, and, through the wonder of Google Translate, got the gist of what was being claimed, in particular from this page. On this page, Dr. Huertgen claims that his therapy is based on 5,000 year old knowledge (yes, the classic appeal to antiquity—or should I say, antiquated knowledge?) stating that “heart heals the heart” and the “like cures like.”

Yes, it sounds as though Dr. Huertgen has been mixing homeopathy with his dubious stem cell therapy.

He goes on to claim that Villa Medica selects individual organ-specific combinations of “live cells” in the “context of patient-specific physical symptoms,” labeling his “fresh live cells” as being “holistic” (of course!). He also uses language that, even through the imperfect abilities of Google Translate, vitalistic in nature. He refers to the “focre of the cell” and the “energy of the cell juices” being able to “penetrate mind, body, and soul.” Elsewhere, Dr. Huertgen refers to harvesting sheep fetuses in the final stages of their development, justifying their use because embryos and fetuses are immunologically privileged such that the mother’s immune system doesn’t attack it, seemingly forgetting that, just because the fetus isn’t attacked by its mother’s immune system does not mean that a trans-species injection of cells from various organs in the fetus will not be attacked by the immune system. In any case, the logistics of this procedure involve suspending the cells in a “nature-friendly,” “body-friendly” solution and then injected intramuscularly.

Particularly amusing is the part where Dr. Huertgen brags about how his therapy is not the same thing as other forms of “live cell therapy” because his cells are, you know, actually alive. Whether this is true or not, who knows? Who cares? It’s irrelevant. In actuality, the entire rationale behind this therapy is vitalism gussied up with science-y terms to make it sound as though it’s not vitalism. However, when you strip away all the obfuscation, what you have is a therapy that in essence claims to infuse the patient with the vital force that comes from the animal organs. The only difference is that, instead of using lyophilized or frozen organ extracts, Dr. Huertgen uses freshly harvested cells that might or not be alive. Both therapies are equally ridiculous, and in the end Dr. Huertgen’s therapy is just another variant of a very old form of quackery. The only good thing I can say about it is that it’s probably not as dangerous as injecting biological material of unknown derivation directly into a child’s cerebrospinal fluid.

It’s not just for autism, however (of course). Villa Medica is primarily known for its antiaging woo, as this video demonstrates:

This propaganda video is packed with pure pseudoscience, quack buzzwords like “strengthening the immune system,” “restoring vitality,” and the like, all peppered with vague and medically meaningless jargon that would sound a lot more impressive if it weren’t done in an artificial computer voice with an exceedingly creepy sound to it. Be that as it may, if you look at it carefully, however, it becomes apparent that it means nothing. It even has a back story, in which it is claimed that this therapy was first invented by a surgeon named Prof. Dr. Paul Niehans in 1931, complete with a testimonial, and, in fact, a Google search quickly revealed that there exists a Swiss clinic named after Niehans providing—you guessed it!—live cell therapy. The video even claims that the idea for this therapy dates back to Paracelsus, 500 years ago, with the principle of “like cures like.”

So back to Piap. So what happened to her child? Well, as is the case with these sorts of testimonials, Piap thinks her son is much better:

“It took about one or two minutes. The first procedure took seven injections but my son is actually used to injections. He gets vitamin B12 injections in the bum and he gets glutathione injection treatment every week so he is used to it. I was so happy that it was so fast and I don’t think he remembered it because when we went back the second time, he was fine. Normally, when he goes to a place where he has had a bad memory or traumatic memory, he wouldn’t go again,” Janise shares.

After about two weeks from the first procedure, they noticed something different in Ethan. He suddenly spoke spontaneously, something that he was not able to do before. More, bigger improvements were then observed.

It is, of course, incredibly unlikely that this change is due to the “stem cell therapy” (or the “live cell therapy” or “fresh cell therapy” or whatever Dr. Huertgen wants to call it). Correlation does not equal causation, and Piap continues to subject her to numerous forms of quackery. Of course, in most other ways, her son is unchanged, but Dr. Huertgen has a ready excuse for that, namely the old “every child with autism is different” gambit. He also points out that he thinks he has to treat for five to ten years for autism, at least until the child reaches puberty. One can see how he could extract maximum greenery from gullible parents this way. He also uses the typical excuse of practitioners peddling unproven therapies:

“What we’re seeing at the moment, eight out of 10 are getting better. This for me is the big proof. If you ask me for a scientific paper, if you ask placebo controlled study, we can, but we have not the money. We don’t have $15 to 20 million to create the study but we can show is best cases,” Dr. Huertgen adds.

He also says that for the last 50 years they have been doing the treatment since they started the clinic back in 1960s and has served more than 100,000 patients. There are already thousands of studies and clinical trials on fresh cell therapy but most of them are in German. The clinic is licensed by the German government to do fresh cell therapy, even as stem cell treatments are banned in most countries.

Yep, we charge tons of money to do the therapy but we can’t do clinical trials because we don’t have the money. We’re too busy using it to buy our Mercedes, vacation houses, and building our satellite clinics in Thailand. But we really, really assure you that we have the results. Trust us. Of course, even though Dr. Huertgen claims he has “the best cases,” I don’t see any of them. I wonder where they are and how they did.

Perhaps the most disturbing thing about this article is not so much the level of pseudoscience and quackery behind this “fresh cell therapy.” Yes, it’s very disturbing that autistic children are being subjected to this quackery, but we’ve seen cases as bad or worse before, including Kent Heckenlively’s daughter. Such cases are horrible to read about. What disturbs me at least as much, however, is the claim that the clinic is licensed by the German government to administer this quackery and has let this clinic continue to operate for decades to over 100,000 patients. It’s not as though this is the first clinic peddling this sort of quackery in Germany. Last year, it took the death of a child and serious complications in another to shut down a clinic offering bogus stem cell therapies.