While waiting at the doctor's office a few weeks back, I was reading an article in a women's magazine listing 10 or 15 "smart anti-aging strategies." One of them was called live cell (or living cell?) therapy and involved drinking preparations of bovine embryos. If I had asked my OB/GYN her opinion, she would have immediately tossed out the magazine and me right along with it. Since I'm always on the lookout for good questions to send in, why don't you tell me your thoughts on drinking the juice of ground-up baby cows?
—Deborah Anne B.,
Like Andy Roddick, I love it when someone lobs an easy one over the net. Live cell therapy—the purported cure for nearly every disease—is based on a two-part notion. First, cells taken from another animal's embryonic organs, when ingested or injected, will be magically transported, unchanged, to the corresponding organs in the human body. Second, upon arrival at said organ, these youthful cells will infuse old, stagnant tissue with new life, much in the way a visit by a fifth-grade class nearly always incites an impromptu dodge-ball game among nursing home residents.
As I mentioned, this therapy can be administered orally—through pills or liquid extracts—or by injection directly into muscle tissue. We can quickly dispose of the oral method by referencing a concept clearly foreign to the practitioners of live cell therapy: digestion. Humans often consume equivalently live cells when eating rare steak, sushi and, most notably, raw oysters (containing living cells from many organs). Live, cooked or in the "Veal-a-Meal" form referenced by your magazine, all ingested tissue is treated the same by stomach acid: Proteins are broken down into amino acids, which are, in turn, absorbed by the small intestine. The only anti-aging effect of swallowing pureed cow embryos is, sadly, on the tiny calves themselves.
The injected form of live cell therapy, sometimes referred to as xenotransplant therapy, was developed by a Swiss physician named Paul Niehans about 80 years ago. Like many fringe medical treatments, there exists an engaging story of discovery involving a dying patient, quick thinking and a remarkable return to health. Suffice it to say, Dr. Niehans was convinced enough by this experience to begin down a road that has now led to his disciples claiming miracle cures for almost every conceivable condition. The list includes, but is not limited to, Down's syndrome, dwarfism, cancer and Parkinson's disease. Banned in the United States, clinics are aplenty in Tijuana, the Bahamas and parts of Europe. These clinics boast of numerous past celebrities and political figures (from Chaplin to Churchill) as former happy clientele and, as most are long dead, there exists little possibility of dispute.
Currently, the most popular raw material for injection is said to come from individual organs taken from embryos of the Blue Shark. Rationale for using shark embryos is based on the widely disseminated—but completely false—belief that sharks don't get cancer. Further nonsense lies in the assertion that these primitive fish are blessed with a perfect immune system (one may refer to an earlier column on the subject for full contact myth-busting). It also appears that media coverage of human embryonic stem cell research adds a convenient implicit endorsement. Actual stem cell transplantation shows huge potential for medical benefits through carefully documented clinical research. In contrast, despite eight decades of live cell therapy, no legitimate peer-reviewed scientific papers have been published demonstrating the slightest positive effect of these injections on the desperately ill.
What has been published, however, is case after case of allergic reactions, anaphylactic shock and autoimmune conditions resulting from these treatments. The reality these reports demonstrate is that rather than delivering, say, shark liver cells to the human liver, the body attacks the foreign matter and creates an immune response. Embryonic or not, additional injections of shark tissue can cause a now-sensitized immune system to overreact, resulting in a severe allergic reaction that may prove to be fatal. Perhaps not suitably dramatic enough for Fox's When Sharks Attack!, the scenario may be just scary enough to tarnish the sterling reputation of Tijuana medical care.
Seemingly innocent popular press aside, one must be extremely cautious of any single therapy that claims to cure numerous diseases of widely differing causes (genetic, developmental, infectious, etc.). No offense intended to women's magazines, but they shouldn't be considered the go-to guide for medical breakthroughs. However, if they continue to generate fun-to-answer questions such as yours, I'll happily share my subscription to Cosmopolitan. Just don't remove my perfume samples.