As president of one of the world’s pre-eminent stem-cell-research organizations last year, Irving Weissman, MD, paved the way for more research using the amazing self-renewing cells. But he didn’t stop there. He also used his tenure to mount a defense against bogus stem cell treatments offered around the world.
This project, resulting in an online resource for patients, makes sense because Weissman believes that proliferating false stem cell treatments jeopardizes the development of real ones. And he had another, more deep-seated, motivation.
The story begins more than 50 years ago when Weissman was a high school student in Montana and a volunteer in the laboratory of pathologist Ernst Eichwald, MD, at the Montana Deaconess Hospital in Great Falls.
“I started as an animal caretaker and research assistant to the technician,” says Weissman, now director of Stanford’s Institute for Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine. “But I was soon reading scientific papers and puzzling out what they meant.” Eichwald had him compile a bibliography of research articles for a paper he was writing; among the articles he recalls was an American Cancer Society publication detailing a plethora of phony cancer treatments.
“I remember there was one that involved a radon ‘health mine’ in Texas,” says Weissman. “They were total quackery. But what struck me the most was that the American Cancer Society had taken on the responsibility of reporting not only treatments that had been proven to be effective, but also they published what was not proven.”
Weissman had a more than academic interest. A few years earlier, a young friend had been diagnosed with leukemia. At the time there was no cure. But her parents wouldn’t give up.
“They took her to a fake clinic in Mexico, and had her seeing a chiropractor,” says Weissman.
The girl died of the blood cell cancer. That first year in the Montana lab another child with leukemia was in an experimental trial with cortisone, which ultimately also failed. These deaths spurred Weissman to begin asking the questions that led (decades later) to his isolation of the first blood-forming stem cell in humans. But his friend’s desperate trip to Mexico also sensitized him to the exquisite vulnerability of families with a terminally ill loved one.
In 2009, when Weissman assumed presidency of the International Society for Stem Cell Research, he made it a priority for the organization to take a stand against marketing unproven treatments and to provide a tool to educate patients about stem cell science. The resulting website (closerlookatstemcells.org) teaches patients and caregivers how to spot clinics that offer unproven therapies, and it allows the public to submit the names of clinics offering such treatments to the ISSCR. [See the story “Peddling hope.”]
But there’s always work to be done. In May 2010, Weissman gave a public talk in Great Falls about the latest clinical and scientific stem cell advances. “After the talk,” says Weissman, “two separate people came up to say they had received unproven stem cell treatments overseas. Now, these ‘treatments’ cost tens of thousands of dollars. And I realized that, if Montana farmers are doing this, it’s still just a huge problem. These people are going into the hands of predators, and we need to make it stop.”
— Krista Conger