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Texas governor and US presidential candidate Perry touts independence, risk-taking, and laissez-faire approaches to governing his state and the United States. Reports recently surfaced that he is taking the same approach to managing his personal health

Presidential Candidate Submits to Experimental Procedure to Relieve Back Pain

On July 1 Perry tweeted that he had had nerve decompression and spinal fusion to treat recurring pain from an old back injury, noting that the procedure had been successful "as advertised." What the Texas governor did not reveal was that he had also received an infusion of stem cells, a procedure that is extremely expensive (no word on whether the health insurance offered to Texas state employees paid for it) and not approved by the FDA. The efficacy of the procedure is questionable.

A Disastrous History of Stem Cell Experiments

Stem cells are known as "pluripotent," having the ability to morph into any kind of tissue. The most obvious source of stem cells is aborted human embryos, which in their early stages are tiny balls of stem cells not yet differentiated into different kinds of tissues. The use of this kind of stem cells in medical treatment is, as all observers of the American political scene know, anathema to almost all Republican and some Democratic politicians.

Injecting back pain and brain injury patients with embryonic stem cells, however, is nothing new. In the 1990's, several Australian neurosurgeons cultivated stem cells and injected them directly into the brains and spinal cords of patients who had had brain or spinal cord injuries or Parkinson's disease. The results were disastrous.

The patients' brains grew new brain cells. They also grew new muscle cells, eye cells, bone cells,  thyroid cells, and cancer cells, resulting in a slow and painful death of the transplant recipient. After these early catastrophes, both the understanding of stem cells and the techniques for using stem cells were vastly improved.

Perry Receives Adult Stem Cells

Most notably, researchers have learned how to work with adult stem cells, stem cells made in small quantities even in adults. Made in bone, adult stem cells have the capacity to mature into blood cells, bone cells, muscle cells, cartilage, or fat. Some researchers have been able to further manipulate the differentiation, or maturing process, of adult stem cells to produce beta-cells that make insulin (from skin cells) and even nerves.

From an ethical standpoint, adult stems are desirable because they are not "harvested" from human embryos. The patient provides his own stem cells from blood or fat to be cultured in the lab to create a large enough number to be reinjected for medical treatment. The stem cells then transform themselves into the desired tissue that needs repair, or more often, they don't.

The most common form of stem cell transplant is a bone marrow transplant, performed with the idea of enabling the body to make more blood cells. While we don't have all the details, Governor Perry's stem cell injection seems to have been intended to regenerate cartilage along the spine that will hold it in place. We don't know whether the procedure has been successful, or exactly how the stem cells were used (whether they were injected into the spinal column and could reach the brain, for instance), but the governor who just a few months ago was shooting coyotes on his morning job has more recently been seen wearing a back brace and orthopedic shoes.

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