First it was sheep, and now it’s sharks: A progression of pseudoscience in medicine

At least half the time, it seems that when I take on a relatively new topic with every intention of just doing one post about it I somehow end up doing more than one post. I don’t know why that is. It just seems to happen. Sometimes, I find something related to but sufficiently different that interests me, sometimes seemingly quite at random. Sometimes someone responds to my post in such a way that I feel obliged to answer. Sometimes, readers make me aware of variations on a theme, so to speak, either in the comments or by e-mailing me links. That’s what happened this time.

Yesterday I posted about a profoundly quacky autism treatment called fresh cell therapy. As strange as it sounds, the idea behind this bizarre little bit of “autism biomed” quackery is the idea that cells harvested from sheep fetuses just short of full term can treat autism. At first I thought that it was a variant of the many stem cell quackeries that choke Mexico and many Third World countries like so much kudzu strangling science-based treatments. It turns out that I was wrong in that the website, which was in German given that this particularly—shall we say?—imaginative group of “alternative” practitioners are located in Germany, explained helpfully that the concept behind this therapy was that “like cures like,” in that, apparently, cells from the organ to be repaired will somehow home to the organ to be repaired via the immune system, letting the “energy of the cell juices” and the “force of the cell” go to “penetrate mind, body, and soul.” In other words, what I saw here was an unholy combination of one major principle of homeopathy (sympathetic magic) combined with pure vitalism, all tarted up with references to stem cells thrown in like so much glitter sprinkled on a turd. In reality, what we have here is a bunch of dubious doctors grinding up a bunch of fresh fetal brain tissue from sheep, injecting it the muscles of children, and telling the parents it will treat their autism. In other contexts, we have a bunch of the same dubious doctors grinding up a bunch of fresh fetal brain tissue from sheep, injecting it the muscles of adults, and telling them it will slow or reverse the aging process.

Reading stuff like this, I sometimes wonder what would happen if I ever decided to turn my power over to evil and became a quack. The havoc I could wreak! Best not to think of it.

Be that as it may, someone pointed out in the comments that this German clinic isn’t the only one using this sort of “breakthrough” treatment. In fact, there’s at least one such clinic much closer to home, right here in the good, ol’ USA. Well, not quite. Its mailing address is in the good ol’ USA (San Ysidro, California, to be precise). Its actual facilities are in Tijuana, the home of American quackery away from home, just across the border from San Diego. There’s even a Best Western Americana Inn in San Ysidro where prospective patients can stay and utilize a convenient shuttle bus that takes them across the border to the clinic. But what is this clinic? It’s called the The Center for Holistic Life Extension, and it’s run by a guy named Dr. Luis Velazquez, who claims his clinic can treat:

  • Health problems related to the immune system.
  • Health problems related to chronic degenerative illness.
  • Health problems related to substance abuse.
  • Collagen illness
  • All illness related to problems in the bone and muscle system, as well as in the cardiovascular, pulmonary, endocrine, renal, digestive, nervous, and lymphatic system. Cancer (I, II, III, IV stage). Arthritis (all forms and modalities). MS, ALS, Allergies, Muscular Dystrophy, Lupus, Scleroderma, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Diabetes Mellitus, Colitis, Obesity, Huntington Disease (Chorea), Down’s Syndrome, growth deficiency, learning disabilities.

Wow. That’s a list, isn’t it? It gets even better, though. Remember how I said that the “fresh cell therapy” used by Dr. Geoffrey Huertgen in Germany sounded an awful lot like homeopathy with cells, at least from the perspective of the rationale for the therapy sucked right out of concepts of sympathetic magic? At least Dr. Velazquez is straight up about it when he states that his therapies are “natural” and based on:

  • Dr. Kuhnau’s Live-Cell Therapy (Xenotransplants)
  • Organ Therapy
  • Classic Homeopathy
  • High resolution, digital iridology
  • Herb Therapy
  • 3 intensive weeks of Holistic Hospitalization

Next, remember how Dr. Huertgen used sheep embryos as the source of his “fresh cells”? Dr. Velazquez uses something much better than that. Why is it better? Well, it just is. At least, it’s more exotic, anyway. He uses “live cells” (which are totally different from “fresh cells,” naturally) taken from the blue shark. Why? Because sharks are way cooler than sheep, of course! (Certainly my five-year-old niece, who thinks sharks are really cool, would agree.) They’re so cool (and their embryos must be even cooler than sheep embryos) that, according to Dr. Velazquez, they have the “perfect immune system”:

It was previously believed that sheep were the best donor animals because of their five or six embryos. However, with the results of recent research, shark embryo cells seem to be vastly superior to sheep embryo cells, in particular the blue shark (Cacharius glaucus) found only in the waters of the Pacific Ocean. (It is important to note that sharks are hunted and killed daily, and the embryonic sac is normally thrown away as worthless.)

The shark has a perfect immune system in that it is free from cancer and has no contagious diseases. It has so far proven impossible to produce cancer cells in the blue shark and this animal also will never accept the HIV virus, for example. Additionally the blue (and other) sharks have circulating antibodies as immunoglobulin already circulating in their blood. Equally important, the cells used in Live Cell Therapy should be from a specie which has a comparable pregnancy time to the human, such as the blue shark.

It is, of course, a devastating myth that sharks don’t get cancer. I say “devastating” because this pernicious myth is part of what fueled a large industry selling shark cartilage, leading to the decimation of shark populations. But sharks do get cancer! It’s unclear how frequently they get cancer; it hasn’t been extensively studied, and sharks in the wild who develop cancer are unlikely to survive long. Also, it’s not surprising that sharks can’t be infected with HIV; it’s a virus that infects humans. HIV doesn’t infect a lot of other animals, too, including sheep. That sharks can’t be infected with HIV says nothing in particular except that sharks are not human. No big surprise there, for sure. What would be surprising would be if HIV could infect sharks. I’m also not sure what the heck Dr. Velazquez means by saying that sharks have circulating antibodies as immunoglobulin already circulating in their blood. So do humans. Has he ever heard of IgG, for instance?

So what, exactly, does this treatment entail? This is what Velazquez does with the shark embryo tissue:

Embryonic cells from specific tissues (in our case, from the blue shark) are ground up, maintained in a saline solution and deep- frozen.* The solution is first tested thoroughly for sterility before being injected intramuscularly into the patient. The live cells are absorbed by the patient’s body and act as a stimulant to “wake up” the patient’s own corresponding cells. The cellular material is brought through “macrophages” (a special type of white cell) to the targeted human organ (ie., thyroid to thyroid, liver to liver, etc.), where it is deposited. The healthy cell material “glues” to the damaged human cells and induces a “correcting” activity by using the very well known ability of every cell to repair itself. With the help of radioactive tagging, not available until recent years, we know that the material injected into humans is quickly dissolved usually within about four hours’ time. Depending on the affliction, the effect of Live Cell Therapy is usually not apparent for four to six weeks after treatment, in some cases earlier and in other cases, later. Each individual will respond differently.

Dr. Valesquez, I would suggest, doesn’t understand the immune system very well. (I know, I know, that’s a massive understatement.)

Are you starting to see a theme here? Just as Dr. Huertgen thought that ground-up organs from sheep fetuses will somehow, if injected intramuscularly, magically home to the organ affected by whatever malady he is trying to treat and even more magically repair whatever damage to that organ is resulting in its dysfunction, Dr. Velazquez believes that ground-up organs from shark fetuses will somehow, if injected intramuscularly, magically home to the organ affected by whatever malady he is trying to treat and even more magically repair whatever damage to that organ is resulting in its dysfunction. Once again, no thought is given between cross-species differences in cellular antigens that results in rapid destruction and removal of material from one species injected into another species. Certainly macrophages will come and get the shark embryo organ extracts injected intramuscularly. I have no doubt of that. They’ll come to feast on them and eliminate the foreign material as the immune system efficiently homes in on any material that should be there. I’m afraid that it won’t transport these cells to the organs that Dr. Velazquez thinks they will go to.

There’s so much pseudoscience and quackery on this one website that I could do a series of posts dedicated to its dismantling; so I’ll just concentrate on some of it for this post. Even doing that, even if I were to extend this to beyond the length of a typical Orac post, I can only scratch the surface. So I will “cherry pick” my favorite bits, bits so outrageously wrong that they made my jaw drop when I read them. Of course, there’s the usual “holistic” nonsense all over the place in virtually every page of the website, along with attacks on conventional medicine. Indeed, at one point, it is asked, “Why travel to Mexico for treatment”? The answer? I think you know the answer: Because “Americans are being denied access to one of the most promising innovations in medical science and they are paying the price,” of course! (Help, help! I’m being repressed!) It’s the evil pharma-medical complex that’s keeping you from being injected by ground up shark embryo organs! So you have to travel to Mexico if you want that sort of “innovative” therapy. And, of course, it’s not “drug therapy” or that evil toxic chemotherapy; so it’s not allowed, even though:

Cellular Therapy is supported by more than 3,000 scientific publications, a number which grows day by day. These works can be found in the library of the International Center of Cell Investigation in Heidelberg, Germany, and some of them contain definitive conclusions over the mechanisms of action based on studies with radioisotopes and histochemical colorizations.

Funny, but I can’t find any of those publications in the peer-reviewed medical literature. One wonders why, if injecting shark embryo organ extracts into people’s muscles can cure so many diseases, there aren’t a lot of reports in journals indexed by PubMed describing these wonders as a groundwork for further research. It must be the evil big pharma suppressing it all, although I can’t help but point out that, if grinding up shark embryo organs and injecting them could cure cancer, big pharma would be on it, given the massive profit potential. Pharma would probably team up with rogue marine biologists and some fishermen in order to corner the market on shark embryos. Either that, or they’d figure out how to isolate the active substances in the extracts and patent them.

Be that as it may, what we have here is a massive case of special pleading. One wonders how much Dr. Velazquez charges for his “services” to produce all those glowing testimonials that he has.

The other thing that Dr. Velazquez has is a primitive understanding of cancer. Basically, he claims it’s all due to a bacteria, specifically a mycoplasma:

Cancer is a mycoplasma (Progenitor Cryptocides) bacteria – just like strep or staph, it lives harmlessly in the body. In its virulent form, it becomes a fatal systemic disease found in the blood. But the cancer mycoplasma is smaller, meaner and smarter. If you attack it, it packs up its bags and moves to another location where it can divide and multiply without interruption. That is why surgical removal of parts of the body is futile since the activated cancer is in the blood. Unless it is treated as a systemic disease, there is no hope of recovery.

How do we get cancer? At the moment of conception, when the sperm fertilizes the egg, 3 things are created: (1) life; (2) an immune system; and (3) cancer bacteria. The job of the cancer mycoplasma is to cause the cell of the fertilized egg to divide and multiply rapidly until the embryo reaches full stage. At that time, the job of the cancer mycoplasma is finished. It will then remain in the blood stream of most animals, throughout our lives as a harmless scavenger.

It’s hard not to wonder how, if cancer is in reality a mycoplasma, treating it with live cells will cure it. It’s all very confused and contradictory, making little, if any sense. It’s not even logically self-consistent unless you stretch. I suppose the claim that “live cell therapy” does that proverbial quack thing and “boosts the immune system” might be consistent with a mycoplasma, but the fact remains that cancer is not a mycoplasma. In fact, you can even find out about Progenitor cryptocides in Wikipedia. In any case, this whole idea of Progenitor cryptocides as a cause of all cancer is a discredited idea originating in the 1950s from a woman named Virginia Livingston. Dr. Livingston (also known as Dr. Livingston-Wheeler after she remarried) came to believe that this particular bug was the One True Cause of Cancer. According to her ideas, Progenitor cryptocides was somehow activated when the immune system was somehow weakened or otherwise placed under great stress.

Based on this idea, Dr. Livingston-Wheeler came up with a complex treatment to eliminate this bacteria that involved subjecting the patient to a whole bunch of fairly standard medical tests and then, based on these tests, designing a “personalized immune-enhancement vaccine” usually derived from the patient’s own serum or blood. there was more, of course. (Isn’t there always?) There was an associated regimen of supplements, antibiotics, nutritional supplements, digestive enzymes, bile salts, coffee enemas (of course!), laxatives, and even blood transfusions, plus a strict vegetarian diet and group therapy. Some patients receive up to 30 g a day of intravenous vitamin C.

Despite Dr. Livingston-Wheeler’s claim of and 82% success rate, Livingston-Wheeler therapy doesn’t work, and Progenitor cryptocides has never been shown even to exist by independent investigators. Indeed, it turns out that Dr. Livingston-Wheeler probably mistook several different types of bacteria for Progenitor cryptocides.

Not only doesn’t it work, but the quality of life was significantly lower in a small study of patients undergoing this therapy, much as the quality of life is worse for Gerson therapy. The American Cancer Society warns against this therapy, as does the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. But Dr. Livingston-Wheeler does, however, have her own page on Quelle surprise!

In perusing the multiple variants of “fresh cell” or “live cell therapy,” I remain astounded how anyone could think that injecting animal organ tissue, fetal tissue, or embryonic animal tissue can magically cure what ails you. It really is vitalistic magic, no different at its core than ancient beliefs that eating the heart of a tiger will give you the courage of a tiger or that consuming bull testicles will restore a man’s potency. It’s just that the success of science has provided a language quacks can use to decorate their magical beliefs and, unfortunately, make a lot of money doing it.