From WABI in Bangor, Maine, comes a feel-good story about a child who will “venture to Costa Rica to be the first person from Maine to have Adult Stem Cell Therapy for Autism.” Reporter Meghan Hayward introduces us to the Kelly family, and eight-year-old Kenneth who is making his mother very sad.
“It’s really hard because we can’t go anywhere,” says a tearful Marty Kelly. “We can’t have anyone over – he just screams all day.”
We’ve seen this story before. It’s the Warrior Mother narrative, parents fighting the odds and persevering against a heartless medical establishment that just doesn’t get it. Warrior Mothers hold a special power over news reporters – they can say or do just about anything and the hapless journalist dutifully reports. The same reporter who question a city council person’s expense report becomes an obsequious stenographer when facing the Warrior Mother.
That’s because Warrior Mothers are fighters. Marty Kelly, we learn, was in denial about her son’s autism for three years before she snapped out of it and bought a hyperbaric oxygen chamber which, according to WABI, produced “great results.” If WABI had actually investigated Kelly’s claims, we would hear that hyperbaric oxygen has never been proven safe and effective for autism. But such details would only displease Warrior Mother.
Unsatisfied with mere great results, the Kellys will now expose their son to a third-world alternative medical clinic, and a treatment that is not only unproven, but potentially dangerous. But hey, Warrior Mother has spoken:
After a lot of research, Marty came across Adult Stem Cell Therapy.
The stem cells go into the body, find the damaged areas, and begin to form new working blood vessels that carry oxygen and rejuvenate the damaged tissues.
The therapy is not done in the United States. They will take Kenneth to Costa Rica.
“It feels as though, yes there is hope and yes, truly he will become a normal boy that will face challenges that we all face as adults.”
So intimidating is Warrior Mother that our young reporter neglected to seek out an expert for a second opinion on stem cell therapy for autism. If she had, she would have learned that people with autism do not have “damaged tissue”.
Dr. Michael Fitzpatrick, a general practitioner and father to a child with autism, coverered this ground in Defeating Autism: A Damaging Delusion:
In summer 2007 a review article entitled ‘Stem cell therapy for autism’ was published in an obscure journal, stimulating a flurry of international publicity (Ichim et al 2007). The authors, based in a biotech company in Arizona and in a clinic in Costa Rica, propose treating autistic children with a combination of stem cells derived from bone marrow and umbilical cord blood cells. Before long reports appeared in the US press that children with autism were being brought by their parents to Mexico and China to get stem cell treatments (which are illegal in the USA – and Britain) at enormous expense. Another autism treatment craze was underway.
The stem cell craze has all the familiar features of the treatment fads that have afflicted the world of autism, with many of the distinctive characteristics of the biomedical approach. The promise that stem cells, cells which retain the primitive capacity to divide and differentiate into specialised cell types, will deliver treatments for hitherto intractable diseases has beguiled medical science for decades. Though there have been some achievements, such as the use of bone marrow stem cells in the form of ‘transplants’ to treat leukaemia, progress has been slow and the clinical yield disappointing. The theoretically more promising – and more controversial – area of embryonic stem cell research has so far produced no clinical benefits. While serious research continues, entrepreneurs have promoted stem cell treatments for a wide range of conditions, including cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease and many more, far in advance of any rational therapeutics. The quest by biotech companies for a wider market for stem cells has led them to take a growing interest in treating autism.
There is no coherent scientific rationale for stem cell treatment in autism, though Thomas Ichim and his colleagues attempt to provide one – or at least they disguise its absence with a barrage of quasi-scientific jargon accompanied by hundreds of references. They speculate that autism is caused by ‘neural hypoperfusion’ and associated with ‘immune dysregulation’ and chronic inflammation of the gastrointestinal and central nervous systems. They claim that stem cells and cord blood can stimulate new blood vessel formation (‘angiogenesis’ – biomedics prefer Latin) and correct the immune and inflammatory problems. But there is no good evidence of a deficient blood supply to the brain in autism, nor any consistent pattern of immune dysfunction. It is scarcely necessary to add that there is no evidence whatever that stem cell treatment is effective in autism – or that it is safe.
Following secretin, the pancreatic hormone that was hailed as a wonder cure in 1998, and before that holding therapy, facilitated communication and auditory integration therapy, stem cell treatment will attract desperate parents and, inevitably, lead them and their children to disappointment (Fitzpatrick 2004: 78-84).
One of the many problems with putting stem cells into someone after they have developed organs is that the signals necessary to direct organ creation have been turned off. The bio-medical entrepreneurs in Costa Rica are hoping that the stem cells will somehow get enough signal to develop properly and not – for instance – start making liver cells in the middle of young Kenneth’s brain.
Isn’t that worth mentioning?