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Perry's Adult Stem Cell Treatment Was Doctor's First Attempt

Photo by Bob Daemmrich, Texas Tribune

The doctor who performed a controversial adult stem cell infusion on Rick Perry during a July spinal surgery said Wednesday night that he’d never done the procedure before he did it for the governor, who could announce a run for the presidency any day.

Meanwhile, the lab that cultured Perry’s stem cells is the Texas branch of a South Korean company that has made international headlines for commercialized dog cloning, "regenerative" beauty products and allegations of so-called “stem cell tourism.”

Dr. Stanley Jones, a Houston orthopedic surgeon and personal friend of Perry’s, has been a staunch advocate for the healing properties of adult stem cells since last year, when he says he was effectively cured of his debilitating arthritis after being injected with his own stem cells in Japan. Like the governor, Jones, who is an associate professor at the University of Texas Medical School at Houston and the founder a Houston medical day spa, staunchly opposes research into embryonic stem cells.

Reached by cell phone in Vail, Colo., late Wednesday, Jones said that Perry believes adult stem cell therapy is the next big breakthrough in medicine, and that the governor had done so much research that he had no qualms about the procedure.

“He said, ‘You know I don’t mind being the first. I like it,’” Jones said.

Perry’s office confirmed Wednesday that the governor had the stem cell procedure during a July 1 spinal fusion to treat a recurring back injury. Reached on Thursday morning, Perry spokesman Mark Miner said the governor "has full confidence in his medical staff, in those who provided his care." 

The adult stem cell procedure Jones performed is the subject of fierce debate, largely because it isn’t FDA-approved, has had mixed success and can cost tens of thousands of dollars (insurance doesn't cover it). Some doctors are firmly convinced the therapy has near-miraculous effects and can regenerate muscle and tissue in sick or injured patients. Others say there’s scant clinical evidence that it’s effective and that the success stories are largely anecdotal.

Jones is completely convinced. Last year, he and his wife traveled to South Korea’s RNL BIO, a biotechnology firm that prepares adult stem cells for infusion, Jones with arthritis so severe he couldn’t operate, his wife with a vascular condition. They had their stem cells re-injected in Japan — it’s illegal in South Korea — and within months had seen life-changing results.

“We’re examples of people [for whom] it’s not a farce, it’s not a placebo,” Jones said.

Jones said that while he was in Korea, he felt compelled — even moved by his faith — to call Perry. “I told him, I’m in Korea seeing miracles, and something needs to be done for our fellow Americans.” Perry was on board — his Emerging Technology Fund had already pledged millions of dollars to adult stem cell research.

During the call, Jones said, Perry pledged to do more to help commercialize the procedure in Texas, so that sick people didn’t have to travel to Panama, to Japan, to Russia to get stem cell treatment. He also vowed to work with the Texas Medical Board to ensure stem cell infusions were permitted, but properly regulated, to prevent an underground industry. (Indeed, Perry sent a letter to the Medical Board three weeks after his surgery calling for members to take great care in setting new adult stem cell regulations.)

In the meantime, Jones was working with the South Korean company — which he says he has no financial stake in but would like to have a business relationship with someday — to help it establish a since-opened stem cell lab outside of Houston.

That company’s South Korean headquarters, which has performed thousands of stem cell infusions and sent out a press release last year on the effectiveness of Jones' procedure, was investigated by the International Cellular Medicine Society in 2010 for the death of a patient that the organization found was likely to have been “caused or triggered by the stem cellprocedure.” (The patient died of a blood clot that traveled to the lungs.) 

Jones said he was aware of the investigation but not the finding — and said it was more likely that the patient, an older gentleman, had suffered a blood clot from sitting on the airplane for so long.

“This is not a fly-by-night organization,” Jones said of RNL BIO.

When it came time for Perry’s procedure — the first Jones, a longtime orthopedic surgeon, had performed — Jones took two teaspoons of fatty tissue from the governor’s hip and put it into culture, then waited several weeks as the stem cells expanded in the Sugar Land RNL BIO lab. During the subsequent surgery, Jones injected the governor’s stem cells into his spine and also into his blood stream, with the intention of speeding the healing process. (Perry, who spent two nights in the hospital, has called the procedure a success.)

Asked if the procedure came with risks, Jones was emphatic: “No, no, none.” He said there are more negative outcomes that result from the pharmaceuticals patients take to treat their ailments.  

“Maybe [stem cell infusions] don’t work for everyone, they don’t make everybody 100 percent wonderful,” he said, “but there are no side effects.”

Emily Ramshaw investigates state agencies and covers social services for KUT's political reporting partner, the Texas Tribune. Previously, she spent six years reporting for The Dallas Morning News, first in Dallas, then in Austin. In April 2009 she was named Star Reporter of the Year by the Texas Associated Press Managing Editors and the Headliners Foundation of Texas. Originally from the Washington, D.C. area, she received a bachelor's degree from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.