Why Stem Cell Critics Are Wrong

By A. Rahman Ford, PNN Columnist

In a recent and rather lengthy New York Times article entitled “Stem Cell Treatments Flourish With Little Evidence That They Work,” authors Denise Grady and Reed Ableson do their absolute best to convince their readers that stem cell therapy (SCT) is based on strange, magical hocus-pocus, and its practitioners are all mad scientists. 

They portray stem cell clinics as shadowy castle dungeons lit only by the occasional lightning strike, and filled with glass beakers that froth with fluorescent-colored liquids.  The authors even use the phrase “unproven cell cocktails.”  That little piece of anti-SCT propaganda even scares me a little, and I’ve had SCT.

In the article, the authors trot out the same tired, empty and underhanded tropes that all articles of its ilk like to employ:

  • “no clear evidence that these treatments work”

  • “gotten way ahead of the science”

  • “no regulatory oversight”

  • “rogue clinics”

  • “scant data”

  • “not covered by insurance”

  • “high risk”  

  • “lack of solid medical evidence”

  • “snake oil”

A recent New Yorker article isn’t much different.  Both articles do contain some valid points, but those points are obscured by the scare tactics, fear-charged language and cherry-picked patient cases.

These SCT hit pieces appear from time-to-time, but rarely in publications with the broad readership of the New York Times and the New Yorker.  After reading so many of them over the years, I began to wonder – if stem cell clinics are flourishing, then isn’t that a tacit admission that the fear-mongering isn’t working? 

And if the fear-mongering isn’t working, why do they keep publishing these less-than-objective articles?  

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Maybe it’s because they feel like they are part of some consumer protection vanguard to protect Americans from sleazy medical charlatans.  Or maybe it’s because the scare tactics have failed and they have no idea what else to do. 

The fact is, as I wrote in a recent PNN column, the SCT tipping point appears to have been reached. The American public simply isn’t buying what the critics are selling. As many as 1,000 stem cell clinics are now operating in the United States, according to The Washington Post, which predicts the industry is “likely to flourish” despite a judge’s ruling that upheld the FDA’s authority to regulate — and stifle — the industry.    

The Basquiat Effect

But it gets even worse for the anti-SCT purveyors. They may be suffering from what I refer to as the Basquiat Effect.  Jean-Michel Basquiat was a graffiti-inspired painter, sculptor and musician who rose to prominence in the 1980s in New York City. 

Basquiat’s work is laden with social and political commentary, with primordial figures, abstract arrangements and linguistic devices.  One of his more popular motifs was to write words and cross them out. 

Why did he do this?  As quoted from the documentary Jean-Michel Basquiat: Radiant Child, “I cross out words so you will see them more.  The fact that they are obscured makes you want to read them.”

One of Basquiat’s paintings recently sold for $110.5 million.  He was clearly on to something.

Put simply, the Basquiat Effect holds that the more one tries to hide something, the more the people they are trying to hide it from pay attention to it.  This effect becomes even more powerful after the phenomenon that is attempting to be hidden reaches it tipping point. 

Because the American public’s curiosity is already piqued, any mention of the phenomenon, regardless of context, compels the reader to look into it. The principle seems counter intuitive, but SCT critics may have provided a perfect example.  The New York Times and New Yorker articles may actually drive more people toward SCT rather than away. 

One of Basquiat’s trademark graffiti tags was “SAMO,” short for “Same Old.”  It essentially illustrated his disenchantment with the prevailing cultural orthodoxy and his intention to introduce something new, radical and revolutionary as a solution. 

In the same way, SCT is a radical response to the failures of medical orthodoxy. The “SAMO” pills and surgeries that exemplify the “treatment” approach to healthcare have given way to an expanding desire by the American people for procedures that actually “cure” chronic conditions and don’t just mask their symptoms.

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The best approach for the anti-SCT purveyors may be to join a pro-cure movement that is clearly succeeding despite their efforts.  Or, they can continue to publish their criticism.  Either way, stem cell therapy will flourish.

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A. Rahman Ford, PhD, is a lawyer and research professional. He is a graduate of Rutgers University and the Howard University School of Law, where he served as Editor-in-Chief of the Howard Law Journal. He earned his PhD at the University of Pennsylvania.

Rahman lives with chronic inflammation in his digestive tract and is unable to eat solid food. He has received stem cell treatment in China. 

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represent the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.

Stem Cell Therapy Can Cure Sickle Cell Disease

By A. Rahman Ford, PNN Columnist

Sickle cell disease is a debilitating illness that affects the hemoglobin in red blood cells.  The disorder causes the normally-round hemoglobin molecules to adopt an abnormal crescent or sickle shape. As a result, the patient suffers from anemia, repeated infections and periodic episodes of pain. 

According to the National Institutes of Health, sickle cell disease affects millions of people worldwide and is the most commonly inherited disorder in the U.S.  It affects approximately 70,000 – 80,000 Americans.  Blacks and Latinos are hit especially hard, with 1 in 500 and 1 in 1,000 being affected, respectively.

Pain is a major symptom of sickle cell disorder.  According to the Mayo Clinic, the pain develops when the sickle-shaped red blood cells block blood flow to the tiny blood vessels in your chest, abdomen and joints.  Pain in the bones can also occur.  Pain crises may last from hours to weeks and may require hospitalization.  According to mainstream medicine, there is no cure.  The only option is symptom management.

However, stem cell therapy (SCT) has brought new hope. Recently, it was reported that 11-year-old Valeria Vargas-Olmedo was cured of painful sickle cell disease.

That’s right. Cured.

In its first stem cell transplant for sickle cell disease, doctors at Loma Linda Children’s University Hospital in California used a stem cell transplant from Valeria’s father to cure the disease. This is noteworthy because the genetic match was only half – what is called haploidentical transplant. 

VALERIA VARGAS-OLMEDO AND HER PARENTS

VALERIA VARGAS-OLMEDO AND HER PARENTS

Prior to treatment, Valeria could not walk, go to school and experienced debilitating chronic pain. After conditioning with chemotherapy, the father’s cells were transfused directly into his daughter. After the treatment, Dr. Akshat Jain pronounced young Valeria “disease free.” 

The University of Illinois Hospital also offers SCT for sickle cell disease.  Using cells from a healthy, tissue-matched full sibling, patients receive immunosuppressive drugs and very low dose radiation before being infused with the cells. This method is less harsh and has fewer side effects than chemotherapy. The donor blood cells produce healthy new blood cells in the patient, eliminating symptoms and making the disease undetectable. 

In 2011, Iesha Thomas was the first patient to receive SCT for sickle cell disease at UI Health.  Six months later, she was cured.

Brothers Julius and Desmond Means were cured the following year.  In this video, Julius says having sickle cell disease as a young child was “like being tortured from the inside out.”


Saint Louis Children’s Hospital offers a similar therapy and uses cells from bone marrow, circulating blood or donated umbilical cord blood.

Unfortunately, not every hospital offers SCT for sickle cell disease.  However, if you are suffering from the illness it might be a good idea to contact a hospital that does, make an appointment with an experienced physician, and see what your options are. 

It is extraordinarily rare that mainstream medicine uses the term “cure” in association with any chronic disease.  Stem cell therapy has ushered in a new cure-based paradigm of medicine.  We need to take advantage of it.

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A. Rahman Ford, PhD, is a lawyer and research professional. He is a graduate of Rutgers University and the Howard University School of Law, where he served as Editor-in-Chief of the Howard Law Journal. He earned his PhD at the University of Pennsylvania.

Rahman lives with chronic inflammation in his digestive tract and is unable to eat solid food. He has received stem cell treatment in China. 

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represent the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.

Have We Reached the Stem Cell Tipping Point?

By A. Rahman Ford, PNN Columnist

One morning while watching TV, I was astonished by one of the commercials that ran.  It was an ad for stem cell therapy.  That was when it dawned on me – stem cells had finally hit the mainstream.  It was no longer a procedure of myth and mystery that people saw as strange or taboo.  It was now real, obtainable and, dare I say, normal. 

The public discourse over the legitimacy of stem cell therapy (SCT) has taken a clear turn in recent years, away from fearmongering and misrepresentation, and toward medical innovation and less restrictive federal regulation. 

Stem cell therapy may have officially reached its tipping point.

The term “tipping point” was popularized by Malcolm Gladwell.  He describes it as “that one dramatic moment in an epidemic when everything can change all at once.”  For Gladwell, certain large-scale social phenomena – which he terms “epidemics” or “contagions” – take hold through small, incremental changes that tend to happen in a hurry.  

Gladwell asserts that, like medical epidemics, “tipping point” social epidemics obey three laws:

  1. Law of the Few: They are driven by a handful of people

  2. Stickiness Factor: At a certain point a message “sticks” in the memory

  3. Power of Context: Human beings are sensitive to their environment 

Three groups of people facilitate successful social epidemics:

  1. Mavens, who possess the specific information or knowledge

  2. Connectors, who bring people together and disseminate that information

  3. Salesmen, who persuade others to believe the information. 

It’s ironic that Gladwell uses examples of medical epidemics to describe a theory that could be applied to a modality with the curative power of SCT. The increasing and diverse number of patient testimonials online shows how SCT has reached its tipping point.

Roar Africa CEO Deborah Calmeyer used her own stem cells to repair a bone chip on a toe she injured falling down a flight of stairs at a Manhattan restaurant.  After two years, her pain was gone and the cartilage completely healed. 

Grandmother Andrea Coleman of Charlotte, NC used her own stem cells to heal her arthritis pain, pain which she described as “10+.”  Less than two months after the therapy, her pain was at a “2 or a 3.”  And how did she find the clinic?  Her husband did a simple online search.

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High school wrestlers like JD Peralta of small-town Clovis, California used SCT to heal a torn ACL and meniscus. 

South Florida mother Marty Kelly credits SCT with curing her non-verbal autistic son Kenneth.  At eight years old, Kenneth couldn’t talk or reread and was still in diapers. Now, after nine treatments, 17-year-old Kenneth is about to graduate high school.  How did Marty Kelley find out about SCT?  She “stumbled” across a little boy in Orlando who also benefitted from the therapy. 

Finally, Superman actor Dean Cain used SCT to heal chronic pain from a knee injury he suffered playing college football.  He even invited DailyMailTV cameras to record the procedure.  Cain also credits SCT with controlling his father’s Parkinson’s Disease. 

When Superman becomes an SCT connector and salesman, you know you’ve reached the tipping point.

Small Clinics and Large Hospitals Tip the Scales

More and more clinics are offering SCT.  This proliferation is occurring despite the restrictive FDA regulatory regime that dictates stem cells should be “minimally manipulated” and only for approved treatments. Clearly, the medical professionals are not overly concerned with FDA policing and investigation. This is similar to marijuana which, while still illegal under federal law, is legally sold in dispensaries in dozens of states without fear of a crackdown.  

This perception that the FDA has adopted a permissive, laissez-faire stance is telling and evidences another SCT tipping point.

Not only is the number of small clinics increasing, but the availability of SCT in large, mainstream hospitals is further evidence of a tipping point.  As Liz Szabo points out in Kaiser Health News, major hospitals like the Swedish Medical Center – Seattle’s largest non-profit health provider – have begun offering SCT with infomercial-like advertisements.  The Mayo Clinic, Cleveland Clinic and the University of Miami have also entered the field to provide options to patients who have exhausted mainstream remedies. 

“We have patients in our offices demanding these treatments,” said Dr. Shane Shapiro of the Mayo Clinic. “If they don’t get them from us, they will get them somewhere else.”

A serious argument can be made that the SCT tipping point has indeed been reached.  Gladwell’s theory fits the SCT movement well.  Although the SCT movement’s initial push was driven by the few, as Gladwell conceptualized, it is the stories of the many that drive it now. 

Context has also been important. The pain and suffering of countless Americans has provided the context that has forced more clinics and hospitals to provide SCT.  And progress has been quick. Just nine years ago I had to go all the way to China for my SCT.

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A. Rahman Ford, PhD, is a lawyer and research professional. He is a graduate of Rutgers University and the Howard University School of Law, where he served as Editor-in-Chief of the Howard Law Journal. Rahman earned his PhD at the University of Pennsylvania.

Rahman lives with chronic inflammation in his digestive tract and is unable to eat solid food.

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represent the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.