Sports stars, Rick Perry, stem cells: how many more people will die?

Another sports stars has been publicly “outed” as having received a non-FDA approved stem cell therapy in a foreign country.

First, the big news earlier this year in June was that NY Yankees Pitcher Bartolo Colon had received a stem cell treatment.

Then we all heard that Texas Governor and, at the moment, leading GOP candidate for President Rick Perry had received a stem cell treatment associated with back surgery that some have suggested might have “run afoul of federal rules”. Does that mean break the law? Remarkably Boston.com reported that Perry’s doctor had said that he had never done the procedure before and was quoted as saying it “had no risk”.  There is no such thing as “no risk”. Even aspirin has risk.

Boston.com also quoted stem cell guru, George Q. Daley of Harvard about Perry’s treatment as follows:

Perry “exercised poor judgment’’ to try it, said Dr. George Q. Daley of Children’s Hospital Boston and the Harvard Stem Cell Institute. “As a highly influential person of power, Perry’s actions have the unfortunate potential to push desperate patients into the clinics of quacks’’ who are selling unproven treatments “for everything from Alzheimer’s to autism.’’

Now it has been reported that superstar quarterback, Peyton Manning, has received a stem cell treatment in Europe as part of therapy for a neck problem.

I blogged before about the danger of anyone getting a non-FDA approved stem cell treatment via stem cell tourism.  Such therapies are not ready for general use and there is a reason the FDA has not approved them. There is no scientific basis for believing that such treatments are either safe or effective.

The enormous problem with sports stars getting these dubious treatments is more general than the risk that they put themselves at and the money they are throwing away. The danger is that with every report on these star treatments it makes it more likely that more and more everyday people will get such treatments. Even more dangerous is the increased possibility that parents will fly their sick kids or budding sports star-to-be children to other states within the U.S. or to other countries for stem cell treatments.

While autologous stem cell transplants are generally considered lower risk than others, they are not without risks. In addition, many clinics are offering allogeneic transplants of cord blood and other stem cells. At least two people have died from unregulated stem cell treatments including a boy who developed a brain tumor after receiving some kind of neural stem cell treatment and a baby who died at an unregulated clinic in Germany, which was the largest stem cell clinic in Europe, that has since been shut down.

As I recently reported, there are rumors that are backed up by recent actions that the FDA and FBI are increasingly concerned about illegal stem cell therapy clinics right here in the U.S. as well.

Every sports star or politician who gets one of these treatments likely directly leads to dozens of regular everyday people putting themselves at risk and losing money that they, unlike the celebrities, cannot afford to lose.

What will it take to stem this tide of stem cell tourism? I’m afraid it will take a celebrity being severely injured or dying from such a treatment, however I am very encouraged by the increasing activity of the FDA and FBI within the U.S.

1 Comment


  1. Matthew Sparrow, the first American to be treated for Fanconi’s Anaemia, had to travel to France to be treated because the FDA did not approve the process in the US. The treatment eventually received approval in the US.

    I believe you are presenting this issue too simplistically in black & white terms. There are certain treatments, such as autologous treatments, where safety has been demonstrated (though not necessarily effectiveness). There are plenty of wealthy Americans that can afford to speculate on the hope of improvement when their doctors simply say ‘nada’. The procedures could actually be safer if the FDA had practical guidelines (such as not injecting stem cells directly into spinal cord or brain).

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