The Miracle Makers?
There exists a world where the blind once again see, where the mentally infirm find serenity, and arthritics are liberated from pain. The paralysed can move again, diabetic pancreases are revived. Almost all chains of disease and suffering are broken. It is a good world, one full of hope, and it is not a far off future world constructed by a sci-fi fantasist – according to Blue Horizons Stem Cells this is our world as we know it, the here and now.
By March next year Blue Horizon, led by Dr Brian Mehling and Dr Dongcheng Wu, hopes to have successfully expanded its business from Dr Wu’s laboratory in Wuhan Province, China, to a clinic in Muscat. “We’ll be offering anti-aging treatments, but we’ll also be treating disease,” says Dr Mehling. “We’ll be able to treat patients with spinal cord injuries, dementia, Alzheimer’s, stroke, all kinds of central nervous system problems, as well as patients with peripheral disease such as diabetes, arthritis…”
And Blue Horizon will not use controversial embryonic stem cell method which has made global headlines for the last few years; they will obtain cells from either the patient’s own tissue, or from the otherwise redundant placental cords of new-born babies. These cells will then be injected into the traumatised area – be that brain, eyes or heart – where they will regenerate, repairing the damage. Slowly but surely, the world’s ailments will evaporate.
Blue Horizon’s expansion comes after Dr Wu’s treatment of around 2,000 patients in his homeland, the majority of whom have shown significant benefits having paid for treatment. By the time Wu’s business comes to Muscat, the price for a single injection will be $10,000, though he concedes that many conditions will require multiple doses.
His American partner Dr Mehling professes to have personally undergone nine treatments, mostly for cosmetic reasons. “I’m an orthopaedic surgeon; I have a pretty significant science background and I think it’s safe,” he says. “Dr Wu did all my treatments – four placenta-cord and five autologus [those gathered from Mehling’s own body]. I’ve seen the effects… I didn’t really have any ailments; I just did it for anti-aging. I feel a lot better.”
Talking to Bloomberg radio earlier this year Dr Mehling expanded on this feeling saying: “It gives you a lot of energy – you can be a lot more productive in many ways. It seems to increase your ability to just even work out at the gym, look better, whatever.”
Of much more interest, however, is stem cell treatment’s potential to heal those who have been suffering from chronic or life-threatening conditions. Dr Mehling cites a friend who has suffered partial paralysis through a spinal cord injury sustained 16 years ago. America’s Food and Drug Agency (FDA) will not approve stem cell treatments, so Dr Mehling took her to China for the pioneering treatment. (He blames the lack of approval on the insidious influence of America’s multi-billion dollar pharmaceutical industry, but in China things are more lax – if no traditional treatment can be used, license is granted to try experimental procedures more readily.) When his friend was treated, the results were little short of miraculous:
“She had three injections of placenta cord-derived stem cells. They were divided intrathecal [applied directly to the spine] and intravenous, 50 per cent in each,” says Mehling. “Within about six or seven hours of her first injection she had almost immediate improvement and motor function to her shoulder muscles. Then, within about a month, she had improved sensation all the way down to her pelvic area and she had motion in her thumb for the first time in 16 years, so that was pretty dramatic.”
That was a little over two months ago and though the patient isn’t yet walking, her partial results seem to be lasting. Doctors Mehling and Wu will continue to monitor her progress for the next few months, after which it’s thought she’ll return for another set of treatments.
On their slick, expensive-looking website, Blue Horizon points out that this year the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was jointly awarded to Professor Shinya Yamanaka and Sir John Gurdon for their studies of stem cells. With the kind of progress Dr Mehling and Dr Wu advertise, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to expect their names to be added to the hallowed list of winners in the future.
However, one of several key differences between their practices is that professors Yamanaka and Gurdon spent time in the lab perfecting their proofs and guaranteeing their science at a microbiological level. They did not treat a single patient.
Conversely, by already treating thousands of human patients, Blue Horizon appears to be decades ahead of the Nobel winners. If their treatments work, then they are already well on the way to proving what much of the rest of the world of medicine theorises: one day stem cell treatments will change the fate of humankind.
“The thing is, if it’s works then great. But what are the chances of it working?” Asks Professor Colin Goding of Oxford University’s Stem Cell Institute. “Even on the examples I saw on their video [hosted on the Blue Horizon website] there’s no evidence that the stem cell therapy they propose actually did anything. If you look at the video you see someone who has been injected with umbilical cord cells. They clearly get better, but that’s not to say that they got better as a result of the injection. It could have been for other reasons – could be that they were getting other therapies and treatments, or that they just naturally came out of whatever state they were in before.”
Speaking via telephone, Y Magazine read the following quote from Dr Mehling on diabetes treatment to the Oxford professor: “In our experience, the requirement for insulin decreases and it’s more of a gradual improvement. It doesn’t offer an out-right cure for diabetes, but typically the function of the pancreas improves and so they are able to more effectively produce insulin. If they’re completely insulin-dependent then perhaps they won’t need so much, if they’re not requiring so much insulin, maybe they can get an oral medication. If they’re on oral medication, maybe they can get to diet control, so it’s not so much that it’s a cure for diabetes, but potentially, over the course of many treatments, that could continue to improve.”
Professor Goding responded with open scepticism: “Well I hear a lot of ‘potentiallies’ and ‘maybes’. In other words: this is not a proven therapy. They don’t have the statistics to back up that this actually works.” With no evidence published in medical journals, and with no mention of animal testing, Professor Goding is concerned that people who are terminally ill will approach the company in desperation, only for the treatments to inevitably fail.
Vera Neusser of the NewLife Fertility Centre in Muscat has much more faith, which is perhaps to be expected as she has a percentage of the Blue Horizon business. She reached out to them for the opportunity to use stem cell treatments to aid her fertility clinic in Al Azaiba. She describes their business as “promising”.
“The lab where they extract the stem cells must be licensed, so until the 1 March the premises are empty. In between times Dr Brian Mehling will get his medical license and by then we hope the Ministry will grant it. If not, then we will work together with the Sultan Al Qaboos University,” she says. When asked about his license Dr Mehling said: “We have been assured by our friends in the licensing department that this license is going to be forthcoming.”
By-passing local academics is an irregular way to start a medical practise in a new country. When Y Magazine approached SAQ for a comment, a source, who wished to remain anonymous, said that they were aware of the Blue Horizon-NewLife partnership, but that “their practises are fishy to say the least… I don’t think they are able to do what they claim to do.”
The source continued: “They need evidence for what they claim to achieve and then publish it in standard medical journals and so far I don’t see anything like this. We will say: watch this space.”
There are excerpts from medical journals published on the Blue Horizon website, though none of them were authored by doctors involved with the practice. This too fails to inspire confidence in the medical fraternity. Researching on behalf of Y Magazine, Professor Chris Henderson, director of Columbia University’s renowned Stem Cell Initiative said: “I sent e-mails to authors of the three clinical publications cited by Blue Horizon to see if they knew anything about this. There is no mention of Blue Horizon in the papers and as far as I can see no authors currently on the Blue Horizon staff.”
Writing from the 250-year-old Ivy League university, Professor Henderson added: “Unfortunately the real problem is that we do not yet have stem cell therapies for many of the diseases they mention. I wish they could make such claims convincingly.”
When told of this Neusser, who has no medical qualification, was unperturbed. Speaking about Blue Horizon’s treatment for diabetes, she repeated Dr Mehling’s reversal theory almost verbatim. Like her would-be colleague, she also blames the American FDA’s refusal to accept their practises on influence of the pharmaceutical industry: “Stem cells will probably replace most medicines, which will be a loss for them. They are not eager to support [it].” (Professor Goding responded to this particular claim by saying he did “not think drug companies bank-roll the FDA.”)
The German went on to vigorously deny that Blue Horizon will be using experimental treatments, insisting that cells taken from a patient’s own body cannot harm them.
Oxford’s Professor Goding actually agrees on this point. “If they are your own cells, it’s unlikely that they’d be rejected by your immune system. But a stem cell requires a very particular environment in the body to survive, and it is likely that the environments in some parts of the body are different from the requirements in other parts. If you take them out of one location and put them somewhere else, who knows if that environment is correct for survival?”
Y also reached out to Stanford University for more views on Blue Horizon’s practises. Like Oxford and Columbia, Stanford is widely regarded as one of the best research universities in the world. Professor Irv Weismann, a doctor for 47 years, heads up its prestigious Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine department. When presented with Blue Horizon’s claims he wrote: “Scientific papers show that stem cells are specific to make the tissues from which they are derived. That means cord blood cells make blood and only blood, mesenchymal [those heralded by Dr Mehling] cells make fat, bone, cartilage at best, but neither make brain, heart, skeletal muscle, spinal cord cells.”
This exactly matches Professor Goding’s understanding of stem cell behaviour. When asked whether or not he would ever consider such treatments for himself, the Englishman started by saying: “I’d want to know that animal trials had been carried out and that it was definitely safe,” before breaking off into a gentle laugh: “Would I do it? No. I wouldn’t waste my money on it.”
A version of this piece was published in Y Magazine (Muscat) in December 2012. It would not have been possible without the tigerish efforts of James Montague who conducted the original interview with Blue Horizon.