Rick Perry’s stem cell surgery worries some doctors

Like most card-carrying conservatives, Texas Gov. Rick Perry opposes research on embryonic pluripotent stem cells.

But the presidential candidate apparently has a very open mind toward therapies developed using adult stem cells, which can be collected from a patient’s own body. So open, in fact, that on July 1 he apparently received experimental stem cell surgery on his own back. In the procedure, doctors removed some of Perry’s fat cells, cultured them in a laboratory and then injected them back into his spine and bloodstream. The procedure seems to have been intended to build bone to fix a bad back.

Some think stem cells isolated from fat could someday be used to generate soft tissue and bone and perhaps even help in the treatment of ailments such as heart disease. But today such treatments often have not been thoroughly vetted by researchers or approved by the FDA, and this week physicians expressed concern about Perry’s operation.

On Friday, an Associated Press report collected a few of their comments:

  • Dr. George Muschler, an orthopedic surgeon at Cleveland Clinic, said that fat-derived stem cells were “‘an unusual choice...quite controversial because there isn’t good evidence yet, at least in the medical literature, that fat cells work better or even work at all in repairing bones.’”
  • Dr. Thomas Einhorn, orthopedics chairman at Boston University, said he was concerned that the procedure used to grow Perry’s cells could lead to cancer cells, blood clots or infections.
  • Dr. George Q. Daley, a past president of the International Society for Stem Cell Research, worried that the governor might be setting the wrong example for ailing patients. “‘As a highly influential person of power, Perry’s actions have the unfortunate potential to push desperate patients into the clinics of quacks,’ who are selling unproven treatments ‘for everything from Alzheimer’s to autism,’” he said.

Worries about quackery are widespread among stem cell researchers. Speaking with the Los Angeles Times earlier this year, stem cell researcher Dr. Christine Mummery of the Leiden University Medical Center, in Leiden, Netherlands, said that she gets “desperate questions” from patients, some of whom consider spending tens of thousands of dollars for unproven therapies.


The best case scenario is that “nothing happens,” she said. The worst case is that the patients die from their treatments. “The hype is so huge, everyone’s looking at it as a solution for everything,” she added.

Whether stem cells derived from fat will be the solution for Perry remains to be seen. So far, a spokesman said this week, he is recovering well.