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Charlatans and Chicanery (Part 1)

Published: October 25, 2010

Hot off the heels of the Dr. Andrew Wakefield verdict, another physician has been stuck-off of the British Medical Register by the General Medical Council. Dr. Robert Trossel was found by the GMC to be in breach of good medical practice by exploiting vulnerable patients and causing mental, financial, and possibly physical harm. After an intensive BBC investigation, it was shown that one Dr. Robert Trossel was charging upwards of $16,000 to patients with Multiple Sclerosis, claiming he could cure the incurable by using unproven and illegal stem cell treatments.

Let’s begin with a little review of medical pathology. Multiple Sclerosis is a nasty disease in which a person’s own immune system is thought to attack and damage the myelin sheaths (a fatty cellular growth) that insulates their neurons. To understand how this disease works, imagine a neuron to be like a standard garden hose. The water running through it would be equivalent to electrical pulses running through our neurons. If you were watering your tomatoes with said hose, and the neighborhood child miscreant came along and poked a big hole in it with his brand new Swiss Army Knife, not only would that mischievous delinquent get soaked from water escaping the hose, but you would see a significant decrease in water pressure coming out of your end. Multiple Sclerosis is like the hoodlum with a sharp tool, poking holes in the coating of our neurons and significantly affecting the flow of our electrical signaling pulses.

Our neurons connect our central nervous system (brain and spinal cord) to all parts of our bodies, allowing these command centers to conduct the orchestra that is our physiological existence. When these neuronal communication lines fail, the tympani drums to a different rhythm, the viola forgets the coda, and the overzealous first trumpet misreads a pianissimo as a fortissimo, leading to a confused cacophony. The communication disruptions caused by multiple sclerosis lead to any number of neurological problems, including but not limited to: numbness, muscle weakness, difficulty with coordination, speech problems, bladder problems, erectile dysfunction, depression, fatigue and both acute and chronic pain.

Problems caused by MS come in two forms. Sometimes, symptoms are associated with relapsing attacks, where the associated conditions may partially subside between successive relapses. The second form of MS is progressive, with symptoms persisting at constant and ever increasing levels. Scientists and Physicians have been working diligently to treat MS, with a fair bit of success. Several therapies are available, including FDA approved medications that may help improve the quality of life for some people who suffer from MS. Because of the wide range of severity with this disease, however, these therapies are not always successful. What is most important to realize is, while symptoms of MS might be relieved through medication and counseling, there is no cure for MS.

Now back to the quack.

From 2004 to 2006 Dr. Robert Trossel was running a clinic out of Rotterdam in Holland. A portion of his business included charging patients $16,000 or more to receive injections of stem cells which he claimed could cure their MS. Many of these patients were desperate residents of the UK who had unsuccessfully tried the legal therapies offered by their local clinics. In a desperate move spurred by countless (but falsified) testimonies of successful recovery, many of these people suffering from MS mortgaged their homes, held charity fundraisers, or gave up their pensions to cross the English Channel and pay the lofty fee that Dr. Trossel was requesting. Now, there is a reason why Dr. Trossel was running his clinic out of the Netherlands rather than the UK. The treatments he was performing were not only immoral, unethical, unproven and dangerous – but illegal in both the US and UK.

Stem cells have often been touted as a miracle panacea, a treatment that can allow the blind to see and the paralyzed to walk. Early research of various stem cell therapies is being conducted, and frankly many of the results look extremely promising. With that said, patients must remember that stem cell technology is still in its infancy. The world is only now beginning to move into the earliest stages of clinical trials with stem cells, and most of the research is still being done at the most fundamental (i.e. in a laboratory) level.

Looking at some of the most recent stem cell research in terms of treating MS shows a promising future. In 2009, by treating embryonic stem cells with a protein called “Sonic Hedgehog,” a signaling protein key to neural development in vertebrates, researchers at the University of Washington were able to successfully produce oligodendrocytes, the cells which form the insulating myelin sheaths of our neurons. More recently, researchers at the University of Bristol preformed a clinical trial, treating six MS patients with stem cells obtained from the patients own bone marrow. The trial showed that this type therapy posed no threat to the patient, and that there were some – albeit statistically insignificant – beneficial effects of this therapy. However, this benefit was nothing close to a cure like the one Dr. Robert Trossel had been advertising since 2004, a full six years prior to the first preliminary trial of stem cell treatments for MS.

Now some of you might be giving this charlatan the benefit of the doubt, considering him to be “ahead of his time” or on the forefront of cutting edge research. This simply isn’t true. Dr. Trossel had no experience with stem cell research, and furthermore he had very little experience with Multiple Sclerosis or neurological disorders in general. It seems that Dr. Trossel even lacked a basic understanding of human physiology. You see, in the partially successful clinical trials of 2010, patients were being injected with stem cells taken from their own bone marrow. Dr. Trossel was not using the patients own cells, he was in fact, serving as a simple distributer of stem cells from a company called Advanced Cell Therapeutics (ACT).

Why does it matter where the cells came from? When surgeons perform an organ transplant, the patient must be prescribed immunosuppressants. The reason for this is that our immune systems will recognize foreign objects, categorize them as a potential threat, and destroy them. The immunosuppressant drugs restrict our immune system from fighting back, allowing the organ to be accepted by the patient’s body. Dr. Trossel was injecting patients with foreign cells with no pre-treatment of those cells, or immunosuppressant drugs to assist in the patient’s immune response. Within days of receiving this $16,000 treatment, it is likely that the patients own immune system would have destroyed all of the foreign cells that had been injected into their bodies.

What is more, a 2006 BBC investigation of Advanced Cell Therapeutics uncovered some shocking and horrific facts about the nature of the company, and the stem cells they were providing to Dr. Trossel.

Be sure to check back next week for Part 2 of this series where I will take a look at the true nature of Advanced Cell Therapeutics, the legal proceeding surrounding Dr. Trossel, and how you can avoid parasitic frauds who abuse their professional positions and prey on the most vulnerable members of our society.